“It started with a goat,” says Joel Carboni, founder and CEO of GPM Global. He was working on an IT project when his boss asked him to solve a problem with a goat, a ruse for shifting a cartful of rejected proposal documents.
Carboni, the USA’s Sustainability Leader of the Year at the CEO Global Awards 2021, saw the irony. “The goal of the project was to reduce waste and here we were with over 200 binders full of paper. I asked: ‘Why are we starting off with a wasteful process?’”
Conceived as Green Project Management, GPM went on to develop the award-winning P5 sustainability standards and PRiSM (Projects integrating Sustainable Methods), which complements existing project methodologies.
Although trends suggest sustainability will become a project management focus–whether or not practitioners want it to—Carboni says it’s still a challenge to convince people sustainability belongs in project management.
According to a 2019 Accenture United Nations Global Compact study, 99% of CEOs from companies with more than US$1 billion in annual revenue believe sustainability will be important to the future success of their business. “You can’t have something with that impact and have project managers ignore it,” Carboni notes.
The problem is that project managers are taught to initiate the close, he says. “Anything outside the borders is out of scope. Our training gets them to understand that organisational strategy and project governance need to be aligned so your project is successful: ‘is it good for the organisation, is it good for the environment, is it good for society?’”
Carboni cites an example of how the result can undo intention: a coffee company that sources fair trade, organically grown coffee but then puts its product into disposable pods. He believes project managers needs to be holistic in their approach to avoid the same oversight. “When handed a project, rather than saying ‘this is what they’re asking me to do’, say ‘this is what they want, what’s the most sustainable manner for me to deliver it?’”
Compliance mechanisms, ISO standards and other benchmarks are regularly infused in operations, and sustainability principles should be no different, he says. “Sustainability is about addressing risk effectively and also stimulating maturity. It touches three areas: maturity, quality, risk.”
What sustainable project management looks like
Sustainability efforts prior to P5 focused on supply chain, but GPM uses a project-led approach. With the United Nations Global Compact as a foundation, GPM “mapped how a project is managed and how risks are defined and mitigated and took it from there,” Carboni says. GPM is a signatory to the Compact.
GPM makes a distinction between project deliverables and process. “Because Green Building Council certifications are so prevalent, for example, project managers look to those, but they are all designed for a deliverable,” Carboni says. “It has to be about the management process. When you look at the UN’s principles it’s across the board, including human rights and labour practices.”
Project sponsors need to use ‘people, planet, profit’ to form KPIs that will incentivise sustainable behaviour. Project managers can then use sustainability as part of their risk analysis, Carboni says. “Go to the project sponsor and say ‘we’d like to mitigate these and map these into new project objectives for a sustainable outcome.’ Once you can show the benefit of doing so, every project will take on those KPIs.”
The potential for project-driven change is huge, he says. “Project managers drive change and organisational learning so if we’re able to integrate sustainability into our governance processes the entire organisation becomes sustainable.”
Unfortunately Australia is punching well under its weight when it comes to sustainability. While the issue has high visibility, Australian organisations tend to use compliance with government mandates as a benchmark rather than take initiative to improve standards.
But this doesn’t have to be the case, says Carboni. “Australia has the highest competency rating for project management in the world so if project managers can make this change, we’ll see a drastic improvement.”
This profile was first published in the June 2014 edition of Project Manager, the former magazine of the Australian Institute of Project Management. It has been updated with new information.