A look at ‘responsible’ project management—delivering projects that yield desired outputs and valuable outcomes, but produce no harm.
As project managers, we are accustomed to defining responsible project management as satisfying the project sponsor’s objective on time and within budget. The Responsible Project Management (RPM) Initiative (https://www.responsiblepm.com), co-created by Drs. Karen Thompson and Nigel Williams, moves beyond these basic project management requirements and introduces sustainability considerations as project manager responsibilities. The RPM sustainability considerations derive from the United Nations’ 17 Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) (https://sdgs.un.org/goals), presented in Figure 1, and address global issues such as poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, clean water, affordable and clean energy, climate action, infrastructure, and economic growth.
These are some daunting considerations. We now have to expand our management approach to solve all the world’s problems! However, when we reflect on the challenges we have witnessed over the past two years, we see that these are indeed important considerations for effective project management. As Korn Ferry notes in Future of Work Trends in 2022 (https://tinyurl.com/bdhdtexc). “Power has shifted. From organizations to people. From profit to mutual prosperity. From ‘me’ to ‘we’.” And sustainability—enough for everyone forever—is central to this shift. Furthermore, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing continues to grow as evidenced by record investments in 2021 (https://tinyurl.com/3ek65m8). For companies that are judged according to ESG metrics, one way to track their progress is through their alignment to the UN SDGs. Thus, a project management approach that incorporates SDG considerations can help organizations improve ESG metrics. While sustainable development is a global priority, there can be tension between the long-term focus of sustainable development and near-term priorities of projects. RPM seeks to help project managers manage this tension by outlining 10 driving principles in A Manifesto for Responsible Project Management (https://www.responsiblepm.com/the-manifesto):
- Purpose. Identify and understand the intentions underpinning projects from different perspectives.
- Awareness. Raise cognizance of potential impacts and unintended consequences of projects.
- Engagement. Involve a wide range of stakeholders in decision-making and promote common interests.
- Curiosity. Be inquisitive, uncover and address ethical complexity, conflict, and hidden impacts.
- Uncertainty. Recognize knowledge gaps, seek clarity, and encourage information sharing.
- Anticipation. Survey changes, evaluate options, and promote informed decision-making.
- Creativity. Understand needs for ingenuity and innovation: make space for imagination.
- Transparency. Foster openness and sharing of visions, thoughts, and feelings among stakeholders.
- Stewardship. Encourage considered and ethical management of human and natural resources.
- Balance. Seek harmony between the needs of people, planet, and profit for the short, medium, and long terms
These principles are discussed and amplified in A Guide to Responsible Project Management, simplifying their application to projects. In short, responsible project management requires us to look beyond the required outputs for our projects to the possible outcomes of our projects. By so doing, we have the opportunity to create higher value projects free of unintended negative consequences.
As environment, health, and safety (EH&S) project managers, we are fortunate in that our projects are intended to create positive environmental and social outcomes. Unfortunately, those positive outcomes can sometimes come with unintended negative consequences. As an example, consider the construction of dams for both flood control and hydroelectric power generation. While these are both positive environmental outcomes, dams can lead to changes in migratory fish patterns and disrupt the transport of sediment crucial to maintaining healthy organic riparian channels. Due to both the risk of age-related failure and unintended negative consequences, nearly 1,800 dams have been removed in the United States since 1912.
Environmental and economic justice are at the forefront on the Biden Administration’s Agenda as evidenced by Justice40 (https://tinyurl.com/nh9s2nkn) which is a whole-of-government effort to ensure that federal agencies work with states, Tribes, and local communities to deliver at least 40% of the overall benefits from certain federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities. The implications of Justice40 extend beyond federal projects and may affect any project that has the potential to impact or create a disadvantaged community. While there are a number of ways to integrate environmental and economic justice considerations into a project, the first step is changing the mindset. And the RPM initiative provides a framework to do that, enabling us to deliver projects that yield desired outputs and valuable outcomes while avoiding harm.
*This article appears in the March 2022 issue of EM Magazine, a copyrighted publication of the Air & Waste Management Association (A&WMA; www.awma.org).