Big Green Project, Big Green Brain

Kal Penn, host of the Big Brain Theory, with the cast of engineers, scientists, and project managers behind him.


Recently we shared with you a powerful video from @simransethi called “the Psychology of Sustainability“.  In it, Simran mentions “the green brain” – the part of the brain that is not concerned with running away from a sabre-toothed tiger, but is actually more interested in figuring out how to deal with that danger in the longer term, perhaps developing defense or camouflage, considering relocation, and in general thinking more sustainably.

And as you know, as authors of Green Project Management, we have set our minds to the long-term thinking for our peers in the naturally short-term mindset of project management.  Our mantra has been to think about the success – and footprint – of the steady-state operation of the project’s product, not the project’s product itself.

Moving from Sethram’s video to a very different form of video – reality TV – we find yet another connection to green and project management.  In this show, contestants are pitted together as teammates and against each other as individuals (you have to watch the show to “get” that idea) in creating some sort of solution to various mechanical/electrical/physical challenges given by the show’s host, Kal Penn.

Before going any further, we want to say that we are strangely and unexpectedly attracted to this show.

Perhaps this is because what happens on each episode is that a project unfolds in real time before your eyes.  You watch a team of 5 individuals work as a team even though they have a not-so-hidden agenda of their own for personal gain.  Sound like any projects you’ve ever worked on?

Be honest.

On the last episode (SPOILER ALERT!) the teams were assigned the task of turning waterfall energy into the productive use of lifting a team member up 28 feet in an “elevator” and then letting them down safely to the ground, using only the power from the waterfall.

We highly recommend that you watch this video before continuing:

Here are some of the interesting takeaways we found from this episode – some general project management gems, and some related to sustainability thinking in PM.

  • Linking enterprise objectives to project goals. One team (the winning one, it turns out) actually incorporated sustainability in the design, deciding to siphon off some of the water to run a small generator which in turn powered the laptop and control/display mechanism.  The judges questioned the wisdom of this, wondering if the extra complexity would challenge their design and build time but also saying that if they could pull it off, it would be very ‘elegant’.  The team dynamics here were excellent.  The leader (Eric) had already been a team leader and learned that he needed to find a combination management style between directive and supportive – he was a little too supportive and not directive enough in his prior team.  Here he found the right balance and the team came through for him, right up to their choice to wear bellhop outfits for their “elevator” challenge.  Alison went up – and came down safely in this teams’ project’s product.  And the project needed no external power – staying more true to the ‘enterprise objective’ of being renewable.
  • Project Procurement Management.  The other team used a buoy system (topped by a rubber ducky!) which was meant to use the repellent power of the buoy to lift the elevator.  Great idea, although it relied on the construction of a large watertight tower made of Plexiglas and welded aluminum.  And it even worked… at first.  Then, the “float” started to sink.  Why?  The team didn’t specify the correct type of foam insulation – they used open-cell instead of closed-cell foam, and it absorbed water, became heavy, and thus, suffocated the poor ducky, and left poor Amy on the ground floor (jumping up and down to try to gain any possible mechanical advantage).  So this was all about project procurement management.
  • Project HR Management. The team dynamics in the ‘buoy’ team were, to put it mildly, rough.  As mentioned before, hidden agendas and drama were prolific throughout, with team members asserting their expertise in areas they knew nothing about, team members following the leader in a passive-aggressive manner, and the leader  (Gui) who had a great idea, a really great idea, not making the most of his resources, even sending one of his four remaining team members home.  One of our favorite characters on the show, Tom, who is indeed a project manager, got the flu.  So this team was down one person for the latter half of the challenge.

We leave you with a recommendation to watch the show.  We further recommend that you watch it with a few metaphorical hats on.


  • Hat 1: Your general project management hat – what types of team dynamics, team leadership, tools, techniques, etc., do you notice?  What worked, what didn’t?
  • Hat 2: Your sustainability hat – how could long-term thinking be employed in a very, very, very short-term project like this?
  • Hat 3: Your bellhop hat – just have some fun watching it!

Set your TV to the Discovery Channel, and set your brain to Green.  Then, inspired, go manage some green projects!

The Psychology of Sustainability – the Green Brain


This is one of the better talks on Sustainability we’ve heard in a while.

It’s by Simran Sethi, a journalist who has been called one of the 10 (or 20, depending on who’s counting) most influential women in sustainability.  Here she talks about the way she personally experienced ‘culture clash’ when she moved to Lawrence, Kansas from New York City.  But the scope of her talk is much larger – and she covers topics near and dear to  our hearts as project managers, such topics as stakeholder management, risk response, even (though not mentioned specifically) Maslow and Herzberg’s motivational theories.

A couple of quotes (or near quotes) we like:

“those who don’t believe in science believe in thermometers

“value exists beyond the balance sheet”

“when it comes to assessing and responding to risks, as humans we tend to react only to those which are

  • instantaneous
  • imminent
  • personalized
  • repulsive”

Watch it – you will enjoy it.

You’ll find it on the video site – just click HERE.  It’s under 12 minutes long.  You have the time.  You won’t be sorry.


Greenwishing? Greenwashing? Or Green?



Isn’t it interesting how air travel works?

You fly thousands, sometimes many thousands of miles (or kilometers), land, taxi to the gate and wait, either for a gate or a jetway.  The last few steps of your journey are tantalizingly close but somehow that last piece never gets done.

Last week, it was a jetway.  No jetway.  So we waited for the last 0.0001% of our journey to be bridged by what in effect is a large straw on wheels to roll up to the plane.  While we waited, I read United’s Hemispheres magazine. in particular, the CEO Letter, which caught my eyes because it was entitled “Eco-Skies in Action“.  Nice story.

In it, Chairman, President, and CEO of United Airlines, Jeff Smisek has compiled what appear to be some striking statistics to boast about:

  • reducing fuel consumption by 85 million gallons this year
  • using lighter products, ground power instead of onboard auxiliary power
  • improved flight planning
  • investing in 150 new 737 fuel-efficient aircraft
  • being the launch customer for the new Split Scimitar winglet which reduce fuel burn by 2 to 5 percent
  • Headquarters in Chicago is LEED certifed
  • Eco-Grants initiative gives 10 $50K cash grants to 10 local environmental organizations  associated with employees
  • and the list goes on

And this was going to be our post for this week.


Until what?  Until we noticed this posting on the FlyingClean website.  In this post, which we encourage you to read, we see a story behind this story.  Now we’re not saying that United should NOT be recognized for the work they are doing.  Of course they should be applauded for their efforts.

But – and this is where the connection to project management comes in – it’s important to look behind estimates, specs, requirements and other numbers like that to get the real story.

Here’s the key snippet from that posting:

“And the real story for United Airlines, is that they are actively and aggressively fighting a plan in the European Union that would reduce pollution on all flights going in and out of Europe.  This plan would save 200 million tons of carbon pollution from being emitted into the air in one year.  By comparison, all the activities United outlines in its “Eco Skies” project are aimed at achieving a reduction of 828,750 tons of carbon pollution in one year.  In other words, United is blocking a policy that would achieve carbon reductions 240 times greater than the current goal it is touting.”

Personally, I think part of the problem is that carbon pollution is measured in such large numbers that average laypeople can be satiated by what sound like gigantic sums, like 85 million gallons or 828,750 tons.  In this case that ‘s 0.83 million tons, when we’re dealing with hundreds of millions of tons when it comes to airlines – because they’re such a carbon fuel-intensive industry.

In any case we think this is a good reminder that when it comes to information presented to us as project managers, whether it’s sustainability info like this, or an estimate for refurbishing a machine part, or a vague requirement from a customer – that it’s our job to push back, dig deeper, and validate the information, otherwise we are working with bad input.

Beware!  As our blog post photo shows… Garbage In – Garbage Out.



Is every day earth day?


We were just wondering – if today is Earth day, what are the other 364 days?

We don’t make a huge deal of the day for that reason – even though we put the planet’s name in our company identity.

Today, we actually just want to bring up the 3-year-old Macondo Well, a.k.a. Gulf oil spill, a.k.a. BP oil spill, a.k.a. Deepwater Horizon.  And we bring it up in terms of long-term effects.  Not the long-term effects of the oil itself (although that’s critically important) but the long-term effects on the company, the employer, the entity known as BP.

Today we saw the results of a poll which shows that three years out, after spending over US$100M on advertising (and of course US$42B on the cleanup and spills), BP’s image is still tarnished.  Click here to read about that poll and see its details.

For those of you who followed our comments at the time or have seen our talks, or who have read our book, you know that we focus on the PROJECT aspects of the well and its turn up.  Key in our mind is that the risk register for Macondo (BP’s well, within the Deepwater Horizon platform owned by Transocean) included precisely zero safety or environmental risks.  All of the threats identified had to do with operations and efficiency. This is public information because of the Federal US investigation into the disaster.  Don’t believe us?  Just check out the actual risk register right here.  And the company had just introduced an incentive plan for managers which rewarded them significantly for efficiency and moneymaking but not at all for any safety or sustainability measures.

And so, here on Earth, where we see projects often managed and measured in that way, we have continued to plug (excuse the pun) for sustainability and long-term thinking in project planning, perhaps even redefining what is meant by success.

After 3 years, scores of billions of dollars spent, damaged ecosystems, poor morale, and a tarnished reputation, is that success?  Not here.  Not on Earth.  Maybe on one of those other 364 planets…

Happy Earth Day, everyone!


Bull’s Eye


We’ve always stressed the connection between project management and sustainability.  It’s our intersection…our “Bull’s Eye”.

And what recently caught our eye was the next in a series of great reports from MIT Sloan and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Their latest effort is called The Innovation Bottom Line, and we’d like to present one small snippet of it below with some connections that we see from the broad (and critical) topic of ‘green business’ to the the specific (and even more critical and core) discipline of project management.  At least, as we see the world, project managers are core and critical.  We think most of our readers would agree, since most of them…are…project managers.

If you want to read this full report, and we suggest that you should do so, here is the link.  Just click on the image of the report, below.  You will have to sign up for a link to the PDF but it’s painless.


And now, as promised, here is the snippet regarding the ‘bull’s eye’.

Hitting the Sustainability Bull’s-Eye

The trends are clear, and the stakes are high. Climate change, demographic
shifts and population growth are increasing the sustainability demands placed on
businesses. Our research has found that companies need not see these demands as a cost burden nor respond to them with tweaks to their businesses or “greenwashing.” Sustainability is both a business necessity and an opportunity, what PepsiCo’s Dan Bena calls the sustainability bull’s-eye. Even moderate
changes to company business models can reap significant financial rewards.

Five Practices
Our study found that many companies are generating profits from sustainability. To do so, they are following these five practices:

1. Be prepared to change business models.
Business-model innovation is a key indicator of whether a company will profit from its sustainability activities. Since business-model innovations can involve significant corporate change, organizations should address the need for and the speed of that change. Setting multiyear sustainability goals that matter needs consistent top management attention, especially if achieving the goals requires adding new capabilities and changing elements of the business model.

[[EarthPM’s comment: multiyear sustainability goals are ‘mission-vision-values-strategy’ items.  We, as project managers, are the unique resource with the capability to bring these to reality.  It is what we do.  Bull’s Eye!]]]

2. Lead from the top, and integrate the effort.

Although the momentum for sustainability efforts is often bottom-up, Sustainability-Driven Innovators lead it from the top. Executives make sure goals are set and tied to strategy. Steering committees and other coordinating groups ensure that knowledge is shared and that good ideas move systematically from pilot to rollout. Sustainability should never be a stand-alone effort. It needs to be integrated into the business and its operations with clear accountabilities.

[[[EarthPM’s comment: pilot to rollout?  Sound familiar?  Again, this is what we do!  Bull’s eye!  Sustainability should never be a stand-alone effort?  This is something we cover in our book when we talk about greenality.  Double Bull’s Eye!]]]

3. Measure and track sustainability goals and performance.

As the adage says: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Sustainability-Driven Innovators use scorecards, KPIs and other integrated reporting tools that track performance against goals. These measures give a clear signal that top management takes the effort seriously. In many cases, sustainability results are a key element of performance reviews and compensation.

[[[EarthPM’s comment: Peformance against goals?  Change goals to ‘baselines’, and you once again are talking about what we do as PMs.  In our book we discuss Earned Environmental Value.  Bull’s Eye!]]]

4. Understand how customers think about sustainability and what they are willing to pay for in connection with sustainable products or services.

Customers aren’t always willing to pay more for a “green” product or service. It is important to determine whether they are. In North America, LEED certified buildings have been definitively shown to
command price premiums in the real estate market. In some parts of the world, especially Europe, consumers will pay a premium for environmentally sound products. But this approach only scratches the surface of sustainability opportunities. As is the case with Dell and Kimberly-Clark, sustainability can help target and address a broad range of market and customer needs.

[[[EarthPM’s comment: customer focus…cost of greenality… enough said.  Bull’s Eye again!]]]

5. Collaborate with individuals, customers, businesses and groups beyond the boundaries of the organization.

Many companies are forming outside advisory groups to help frame their sustainability agenda. This process is an opportunity to get closer to customers, who can be a useful resource for identifying appropriate members. NGOs have become much more constructive in their corporate engagements and can help your company identify credible, meaningful and feasible sustainability objectives that lack the appearance of “greenwashing.”

[[[EarthPM’s comment: one final time, as project managers, what do we do?  What has PMI done recently to illustrate this?  Only add an entire Knowledge Area on this topic – Stakeholder Management.  Quintuple Bull’s Eye!]]]

We really do encourage you to read this report – loaded with data from real interviews with real leaders of all sorts of business leaders.  And read it from the perspective of these bull’s eyes.  Are we on target, or what?