In the second of their series on Responsible Project Management, Karen Thompson and Nigel Williams explain what it is and how it differs from other approaches to sustainability in project management. This series of blogs draws on material that has been presented and discussed at professional engagements over a period of 18 months leading up to the signing of the Manifesto for Responsible Project Management on 3rd July 2019.
One response by the United Nations to the Grand Challenges facing humanity today was the identification of 17 interconnected Sustainable Development Goals that were accepted by all member nations in 2015. Responding to the Grand Challenges necessitates projects. Projects are required to achieve all the 17 SDGs, however climate change, aka global heating, is arguably the most urgent. For example, the UK has launched a program called Net Zero, a £1 trillion initiative aimed at catalyzing the required technological and behavioral changes to reduce the country’s contribution to global heating1. Future projects in countries with such initiatives will be impacted by these changes and will be required to incorporate activities supporting the achievement of Net Zero into conceptualization, delivery and eventual disposal or repurposing. Responses to climate change such as Net Zero also implies the growing importance of projects that broadly fall into three categories:
- Emergency Crisis Response (projects that support response to climate change triggered emergencies such as flooding)
- Climate Mitigation (reduce emissions of contributors to global heating)
- Climate Adaptation (ensure society is resilient to the adverse impacts of climate change)
Research on the management of these new project types is limited. However, there is some evidence to suggest that existing project management methods, practices, tools and techniques may not adequately address the human complexity and environmental dimensions of these new types of projects.
Along with the SDGs, the UN developed 7 Principles of Responsible Management Education and these provide another reference point for the concept of Responsible Project Management. Unlike other management domains such as Accounting, projects have unclear organisational boundaries, a wide range of evolving stakeholder relationships and temporal variations. Major projects frequently involve multiple locations who may have differing legal and value systems, increasing complexity and requiring governance structures to be negotiated, not imposed.
To date, the responses of the project management profession to these increased calls have been to deploy new frameworks and to identify sustainability objectives for projects. The scenario calls for not only changes to project conceptualization and delivery, but for the training and development of new types of project professionals, the focus of Responsible Project Management.
We began by bringing together researchers, practitioners and students of project management and other disciplines in a social learning workshop to explore what managing projects responsibly might mean. Other disciplines represented included sustainability, ethics and CSR, environmental law, economics, organisational development and coaching. This was a novel, open innovation approach that led to some very interesting discussions. The outcomes of this first workshop were synthesised into ‘A Guide to Responsible Project Management’2.
Sustainable development conventionally recognises that economic, environmental and social requirements compete for our attention. Inspired by related work on the Circular economy, we reframed these tensions as dependencies i.e. we all live together on one planet, and trade-offs between the different types of requirements do not make sense. Not that such re-framing makes finding a balance any easier, but it does bring the need to develop solutions that meet the needs of people, planet AND prosperity into sharp focus.
Collaboration with the Association of Sustainability Practitioners led us to interpret sustainability, not as an objective but, as ‘an outcome of conscious thinking’. Mapping the level of awareness of intended and unintended consequences of actions – low to high – against the impact of actions taken upon people and natural resources as destructive or regenerative, led us to understand the mindsets towards sustainability, as illustrated.
Following this interpretation led us to the notion that managing projects responsibly will require new knowledge, skills and capabilities. Future research and education will need to focus on developing practitioners’ mindset, mental models and competencies. We contend that Responsible Project Management is a call for a different type of Project Manager.
The Responsible discussion continued after publication of the Guide. Subsequent conversations led to development of a draft Manifesto for Responsible Project Management and a draft version was a catalyst for a second social learning workshop in July 2019. The Manifesto itself will be the subject of our next blog.
Please join our Facebook Group called Responsible Project Management, visit the website
and share your own case studies and stories.
Join Karen and Nigel for a 60 minute ZOOM Live session to explore the Responsible Project Management Manifesto between 12.30 and 13.30 BST on Tuesday 23rd July.
More in the Blog Series
Dr. Karen Thomson is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Strategy, and Organizations and Dr. Nigel L. Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Project Management, both at Bournemouth University. Together they are two of the leading forces behind the University’s Responsible Project Management concept.