The most important aspect of reaching sustainable solution through projects is to widen our perspective. It´s not enough to focus purely on the project lifecycle. We need to have a much broader view. Let´s elaborate a bit on three important stages for projects in order to see how sustainability can fit in.
The “ex post“ view on projects:
Before starting a new project, we should analyse the development path that led to our project, whether there were previous projects with results that are inputs for our new projects, political processes that form the opinion of our stakeholders, experiences and lessons learned collected during similar projects, e.g. for sustaining good practices and for improving processes in use. Before starting a new project it is advisable to perform a feasibility study and a sustainability impact analysis. The results can help us to develop a business case and a project management plan that supports the ambitions or goals of an organisation´s management in reaching sustainability.
The “ab initio” view on projects:
In projects we need to consider sustainability from the beginning (“ab initio”), applying sustainable practices, methods and tools, developing project objectives that cover sustainability and manage the project itself in a sustainable manner (e.g. saving resources where possible). Sustainability in project management means to have a broader look at various processes (e.g. processes of purchasing), the overlapping lifecycles of products, processes, services and systems (from the first idea to decommissioning). It involves more than just the inner circle of stakeholders, external stakeholders, society and nature needs to be taken into account, individual behaviour and cooperation play a decisive role in achieving sustainable solution. In essence, sustainable requires us to think broader, adopt systems thinking and be aware of the complexity in our projects and programmes [see articles starting page 14 in ICCPM Connect Issue 18, 2015: https://iccpm.com/sites/…/connectsept_2015_final_pages.pdf].
The “ex ante“ view on projects:
It´s self-explanatory that sustainability does not end after the approval of the project´s deliverables. In my opinion, sustainability starts here, delivering more than a product, a service or “outputs”. We need to aim at impact [http://blog.ipma.world/impact-project-not-deliverables/], long-term outcomes and strategic benefits. One could argue “but that´s not the responsibility of the project manager anymore”! Yes and no. Yes, because the project is temporary and I cannot ask someone to be accountable for something that is beyond the project lifecycle. So who is accountable for the sustainable outcomes of a project? There should be a project owner / sponsor, the manager of the business or even the top managers of an organisation. Personally, I prefer to organise change and sustainable solutions in form of a programme. Projects help to lever capabilities and the accountability of the programme management includes (at least partially) the benefits realisation. However, the project is instrumental in achieving this long-term outcome and thus needs to help achieving sustainable solutions. Staying in time, in budget and to requirements is just “project management success”, no “project success”, which is more holistic and takes into account sustainability to a much greater extent.
The above also demonstrates that sustainability is not just injecting some methods and tools into the current project management practice. It is concerned with the whole organisation, affecting strategies, processes, organisational structures, roles and cultures. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) need to be more holistic. Our views need to be more systemic and cover the three stages of a project.