Published here October 2016.
Updated October 7, 2016.


Musings Index

Green Project Management[7]

"Green" project management? What that really means is that we want to talk about "Sustainability in the context of project management". But that is 16 syllables and a bit of a mouthful, as compared to 6 in this title. That's why "Green Project Management" is a much more popular topic description because it makes it easier to grab attention.

Now the next hurdle is what do we mean by "sustainability"? The word "sustainability" obviously comes from the word "sustainable", which in turn, at its simplest, means: "keep on going". Now it seems to me that this is the antithesis of "project management" whose sole purpose is to get things done and finished with, albeit in an effective and efficient manner. So that doesn't get us very far.

Next we can turn to Wikipedia, where we learn that:[1]

"Since the 1980s sustainability has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth and this has resulted in the most widely quoted definition of sustainability as a part of the concept sustainable development, that of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987: 'sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."[2]

It is true that "development" implies "projects", but doing projects that complete without impairing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is a tough one because we are faced with ecological limits in the environment. The environment does have the ability to recover itself from degradation, but only at a relatively slow pace. If we met the standard set by the Brundtland Commission, it would be rather like living off the interest from a financial investment derived from your savings without cutting into your capital. And at today's interest rates, that's not easy! In fact it would be a very forlorn hope.

Back to sustainability in project management, what are the real objectives here?

I decided to approach my learned colleague, Gilbert Silvius with this question: "Since 'sustainability' (unqualified) means different things to different people, perhaps the first point of departure is: What do you see as the definition of 'sustainability' in the context of managing projects?" To this I received the following enlightenment:[3]

"Well, where do I begin? The relationship between sustainability and project management is definitely an emerging topic in project management studies, publications and standards. The past years have seen probably some 200 books, papers, journal articles and book chapters on the topic. No doubt you will have seen a number of them. So, there are quite a number of insights developing on the topic. On the 'why', on the 'what' and on the 'how' of sustainability on project management. Perhaps a first answer is in the form of a definition:

Sustainable Project Management is the planning, monitoring and controlling of project delivery and support processes, with consideration of the environmental, economical and social aspects of the life-cycle of the project's resources, processes, deliverables and effects, aimed at realizing benefits for stakeholders, and performed in a transparent, fair and ethical way that includes proactive stakeholder participation."[4]

"Or simply: Project management with consideration of the concepts of sustainability."

The first thing that struck me with the first definition was the number of words all in one sentence — a total of 55 words. According to Fog Indices experts, that requires an advanced degree to comprehend. It is also 15 more words than the very maximum I allow myself in my writings. In the case of the second definition, if you don't know what "sustainability" means in the first place, then you are no further forward.

However, my learned colleague did explain that when they present the full definition of Sustainable Project Management, as described above, they do break it down into several parts. That is to say:

"Sustainable Project Management is the planning, monitoring and controlling of project delivery and support processes with:

  1. Consideration for the environmental, economical and social aspects,
  2. Consideration of the life-span of the project's resources, processes, deliverables and effects,
  3. The aim of realizing benefits for stakeholders involving proactive stakeholder participation, and
  4. All performed in a transparent, fair and ethical way"

"When people understand a bit more about the concepts of sustainability, the long definition is actually quite logical."

"For us the project manager has a central role in the realization of the project and can address sustainability aspects in the team, in the project board, towards stakeholders and towards the project sponsor. Why would the project manager do that? Simply, to make the project better and more successful.

After all, project managers are professionals, right? That means that 'just doing your job' is not enough."

The last sentence hit home. My learned colleague certainly has a point. But for clarity he went further, explaining that #1 refers to the triple bottom line concept. (But this is a responsibility of corporate management). #2 refers to the life span of the product and long-term thinking. (Again, this is typically beyond the mandate of the PM. Once the product of the project is transferred into the care, custody and control of its new owner, except for warrantee and perhaps training purposes, the PM has no further influence over the product itself. Any change to the product required at this point becomes a new project.)

Item #3 refers to "stakeholder theory". (The stakeholder theory is a theory of organizational management and business ethics that addresses morals and values in managing an organization.[5] Certainly there is some responsibility on the shoulders of the project manager here, but largely with respect to the project team and the stakeholders with whom he or, she, works.) #4 refers to the principles of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).[6] (Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a business approach that contributes to sustainable development by delivering economic, social and environmental benefits for all stakeholders. CSR is a concept with many definitions and practices. To the extent that corporate management delegates such responsibilities to lower management levels, then this appears to be very similar to item #3.)

But where do all those fine words leave the project manager? First we have to make some assumptions:

  1. We are not talking about Program Managers or even Project Portfolio Managers. We are talking about Project Managers managing individual projects, i.e. single project management (SPM) as defined by most authorities.
  2. The objectives of these SPM managers are to deliver some form of outcome as instructed by their Project Sponsors, or by contract, or by a set of agreed requirements, and
  3. To do so according to some specific allowance in both budget and schedule. No more, no less.

So, the primary onus for "Green Project Management" rests with corporate management. And then, only to the extent it is delegated to their Project Portfolio Managers and Program Managers or Project Sponsors, who in turn must see that the necessary expectations are included in Project Managers' project terms of references.

And even then, responsibility should be passed on to the Technical Managers who are responsible for managing the actual creation of project deliverables. That's because this is where the benefits from those deliverables have the most long-term impact over the life of the products created.

All of this is to show that although Project Managers as a group provide a convenient body to castigate, the focus is on the wrong target. It should be on that part of corporate management that is responsible for managing projects within the whole organization.

Footnote: We have referred to corporate this and corporate that. Although this is often taken to mean the private sector, governments at all levels are equally if not more accountable by virtue of the large-scale procurements for which they are typically responsible.

1. See
2. See
3. By Email, February 1st, 2016
4. Source: Silvius, A.J.G. and Schipper, R. (2014), "Sustainability in project management: A literature review and impact analysis", Social Business, 4(1), 63-96.
5. See Google:
6. See Google:
7. After publishing this Musings, I was alerted to the fact that the title "Green Project Management®" is a registered trademark of GPM Global, see My sincere apologies!
Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page