What is green project management?

As someone interested in both project management and sustainability, I’ve been wondering how to bring the two together. And lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about green project management. But the discussion is often made up of questions — the main one being, What is green project management?

Like many people, I’ve tended to think of green project management as managing projects in specifically green industries, such as companies that promote renewable energy or electric vehicles. And of course, that qualifies. But at a recent webinar, Richard Maltzman and David Shirley, authors of Green Project Management, argued convincingly that although projects fall on a spectrum from those that are green by definition, such as a solar installation, to those that aren’t primarily about sustainability but have green elements, any project can be run in a more sustainable manner.

The business world is starting to see the benefits of sustainability. We’ve all heard stories about companies such as Walmart going green, and now more and more companies are finding that being more sustainable not only helps their bottom line but also improves their brand reputation. In fact, a recent MIT Sloan report notes that most businesses are anticipating “a world where sustainability is becoming a mainstream, if not required, part of the business strategy.”

In spite of this, not everyone accepts sustainability as a natural part of the project management discipline. But Maltzman and Shirley make a strong case for “greenality” (a combined focus on green and quality) in managing projects. As they note, project management is already concerned with reducing costs, increasing value, and protecting scarce resources — all practices that fit nicely with being green. So it’s not much of a stretch to incorporate green practices and considerations into any project, not just those in a sustainable industry.

What can project managers do? It’s in relation to projects that aren’t obviously green that a project manager’s role becomes interesting. All projects affect the environment somehow, and a project manager can help mitigate that by considering the environmental effects of the project and also of the product resulting from the project.

A shift in thinking is required. As project managers, we must think beyond the confines of our project to consider:

  • The entire life cycle of a product resulting from our project. For example, a washing machine might be made with the greatest care taken to produce it in a sustainable manner, but it turns out that washing machines consume the most during use — much more than in their production, distribution, or disposal.
  • The project’s sponsor and beyond. We should consider the “ultimate sponsors, users of the product in the steady state, and in fact, an expanded set of stakeholders (like our grandchildren) who will inherit the environment in the long(er) term.”

This may be starting to sound more green than businesslike, but Maltzman and Shirley are quick to point out that sustainable practices are good for business (for more, see the “5 Assertions” on their Earth PM blog):

  • Understanding the green aspects of a project better equips project managers to identify and mitigate risks.
  • Running a project with green intent helps teams not only do the right thing but also do things right for the business.
  • Adopting an environmental strategy increases the chances for success of the product and the project.
  • Viewing projects through an environmental lens both encourages long-term thinking and allows the project to take advantage of the current “green wave.”
In addition to expanding our thinking, Maltzman and Shirley encourage project managers to do the following:
  • Be a change agent. This shouldn’t be a stretch, since every project is about change or it wouldn’t happen at all.
  • Connect our organization’s Environmental Management Plan to our project’s objectives — and if there is no EMP, create or help create one.
  • Ensure that both quality and sustainability (“greenality”) are built in to our thinking about a project, rather than bolted on as an afterthought.

As a project manager working on software documentation projects, I’ll have to think about how I can apply these concepts to my work. The only products I’m helping produce are somewhat amorphous ones such as help systems. For the most part no longer available in the form of printed manuals, our help systems have already become more green. And my employer, Adobe Systems, has a robust sustainability program. But I’m sure there’s a lot more to be done, and it will be interesting to think of ways that I can contribute as a project manager.

6 thoughts on “What is green project management?

  1. Amit ganguly

    As an aspiring PMP and a Sustainability professional I am always on a look out to incorporate Sustainability principles into my Work and Ethics. The techniques and ideas mentioned here are strongly recommended for aspiring Sustainability PMP’s.

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