How to Make Your Project Sustainable

To write about how to introduce sustainability measures into your project, I’ll be focusing on Boston. That, of course, means that there simply has to be a sports connection. Larry Bird of the Celtics (number 33) and Ted Williams of the Red Sox (number 9 = 3 x 3) were two of Boston’s best legends whose numbers just happen to point to the idea of a ‘double triple’.

Their numbers remind us of two important “triple” concepts in managing projects: the triple constraint and the triple bottom line (TBL).

The triple constraint is a concept familiar to most project managers. It speaks to the balancing act project managers face, between scope, time and cost. Sure, the most recent PMBOK® Guide adds risk, quality and resources, but the core triple constraint concept remains true and constant. We have to balance these constraints, deeply understanding which is most important to the most important stakeholders at the start of our project, and pay attention to how those priorities change during the project.

Then there is the other “triple” – the triple bottom line. This is the concept that says when it comes to looking at results for a business, money does not tell the whole story–at least not in the long term.

The triple bottom line is the consideration of economic, ecological and social aspects of the business. The phrase was coined in 1994 by sustainability consultant John Elkington and gained popularity in his book Cannibals With Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business (Capstone Publishing Ltd., 1997).

If you’re thinking that TBL could bring more constraints to a project, well, you’re right. However, I suggest that you keep an open mind and think about the TBL the same way we’ve grown to think about risk – it can be negative or positive. 

managing sustainable projects

What Does Sustainability Have to Do with My project?

There are a lot of reasons project managers should consider the triple bottom line on projects. The stories of spectacular project failure are renowned, and many have had direct impact on human life.

The upcoming World Cup development in Qatar has already led to significant loss of life. Labor issues and loss of life plagued the 2014 World Cup project in Brazil. Social and ecological impacts with large scale dam projects like the Panama Canal expansion globally are well documented. 

While such failures are often considered “necessary evils” of large-scale project development, for every large project, there are hundreds if not thousands of smaller projects that contribute to the larger effort. Boston’s Big Dig, a huge Central Artery and Tunnel Project (CA/T), was meant to solve a monumental traffic congestion problem on the turnpikes. The Big Dig was problematic almost from the start. The project was over budget, very late, and was unable to deliver full scope. The dig area became prone to even more congestion with over 200,000 vehicles used in the construction. Also, the long-term sustainability of the project was not considered. Metal clips designed to hold over 25,000 light fixtures to the walls of the tunnels began to corrode, and the lights started to fall on the roadway. Luckily, this was discovered before anyone was hurt. However, the repair was expensive, not only in economic losses, but in inconvenience to commuters and further damage to the “brand” of the Big Dig.

No doubt the lighting project was one of hundreds of sub-projects in the scope of the large scale Big Dig. But that small project could have had disastrous effects. Thinking about long-term sustainability can often come down to micro-decisions made on a project. Few project managers would want to be the one who contributed to a serious accident due to a failure to track quality measures on their small project.

How to Apply Sustainability Principles on Your Project

Managing the triple constraint will help to run your project efficiently. You need to properly prioritize scope, schedule and cost, balancing them as you always have – that’s the project manager’s job. But what makes you – and your project – truly successful, is assuring that your project’s product is a success in the short and long term. So how do we do this?

  • Analyze and align. Step back and look at the way your project connects with the mission, vision and value of the enterprise or larger project. Using the Big Dig as an example: you want to serve the commuters in the long term, not just complete the successful building of the tunnel or bridge.
  • Plan for Quality. Set up your project with quality in mind. Meet with stakeholders to discuss what sustainability means in terms of quality deliverables practically and in terms of risk. This knowledge will helps you make better decisions and may eliminate unnecessary risk such as the use of faulty metal clips.
  • Begin with the end user in mind. By building connections with the people who operate and/or use your project’s product, by practicing active listening with users, you can make better choices. In the Big Dig, commuters would likely have had tunnel safety high on their list of concerns. Maybe that would have lengthened the time of construction and costs involved, but it would also sustain the viability of the project long after it was finished.

Sustainability is not a new concept, yet it is often marginalized as a “nice to have” for busy project managers and companies focused on the bottom line, despite compelling evidence from academics and business leaders alike. A recent MIT-Sloan Report reveals, for example, that at the enterprise level, ecological considerations have led to greater success for business. Similarly, Shell Oil president Marvin Odum said that sustainability may be the largest single innovation driver at his company, and that in particular he has to “point the project managers’ thinking in that direction.”

Many other cases can be found, including “The Sustainability Imperative” from Harvard Business Review. For more case studies read Green To Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage (Wiley, 2009) by Daniel C. Esty and Andrew Winston, who illustrate the economic advantage of aiming for a more sustainable business.

The ability to track the various risk factors on your project is a key component of your job as project manager. With the right online software tools, providing you a bird’s-eye view of the work in real time, where you can track the scope, schedule and cost, you can do your job better. Try our ProjectManager software free for 30 days and see how it can help you and your project.

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