The Elephant and the Swiss Army Knife

The Elephant and the Swiss Army Knife

As we work with project managers to promote the idea of sustainability thinking in our profession, we encounter some excellent challenges – challenges from our project management colleagues.

Like us, these colleagues have years – often decades – of valuable experience under their belts, and come with the training and vocabulary, as well as the “upbringing” around project scope and the job of the project manager.

That’s all good.  And, we appreciate these challenges, especially when they’re posed by thoughtful and knowledgeable project managers.  These challenges force us to question our thinking.  And we have.  What’s come out of that questioning is a re-affirmation that sustainability thinking does belong in the repertoire of the PM and their projects.

Recently we’ve had an interesting (and ongoing) exchange with a “camp” of project managers who have challenged us from an angle which is a bit different from other cynics.   Some cynics have questioned whether climate change is an issue at all, or whether it’s caused by humans, and so on.  Often these folks have a lot of emotion and a strong agenda, and the ironic thing is that if they read our book and/or blog postings, they’d know that:

  • The case for sustainability is only partly related to the environment.  The triple bottom line of sustainability involves not just environmental concerns but importantly includes economic and ethical/social considerations
  • Our case for sustainability thinking in PM does NOT hinge on climate change, whether it exists or not, or is caused by humans, iguanas, elephants, or aliens.

No, instead of challenging us emotionally with a rant against climate change, this camp agrees strongly with the need for business managers to tackle sustainability issues head on.  This camp gets that part of the equation.

So – where’s the rub?

Here it comes – a subtle but significant difference: although they agree with the need for businesses to take on sustainability, they feel strongly that project managers have no role in this effort at all.  They view sustainability as simply another constraint. A burden.  A heavy, unnecessary burden.

While we continue to firmly believe that we have a key and central role – the connection between strategy and operations, this camp holds just as firm to the belief that these aspects of business need not – should not – must not – find their way into our projects.

In fact, they’ve gone as far as to make the analogy that the consideration of sustainability would be akin to having to carry around a large mammal on our backs.  It would be, they assert, like an elephant on our backs.  Another constraint to worry about, to distract us, to prevent us from doing our jobs, which is focused on the unique deliverable to be provided within the agreed timeline and budget.  We know.  We know.

Further, we won’t deny that there is more work to do if one is to properly consider sustainability in initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing a project.

Where we differ from this camp is in describing exactly what it is we’re ‘carrying’ if we take this on.  We don’t think it’s an elephant or any sort of large mammal.  Instead, what we are taking on is something which indeed does have a little weight, but which, in fact, contains a significant value to the project and the project manager, and even more so, the very business managers that the other camp think should be uniquely charged with this responsibility.

(Here the authors would like to apologize to all elephants, and in fact, the entire pachyderm family, and indeed all large mammals, by insinuating that elephants have no value.  We indeed think they have significant value, but you have to admit that they really weren’t put on Earth to be carried around by project managers).

So what is it that we suggest for a counter-analogy?  Instead of an elephant, how do we visualize this extra weight, this additional burden?

A Swiss Army knife.  A tool that, yes, has some weight, in fact, but is something from which we can get a significant amount of value in exchange for the “cost” of carrying it along with us on our project journey.

Considering sustainability – economic, ecological, and/or ethical – may be a little bit more work, but it helps you in many ways as you’ve seen, and will continue to see on this blog.  A quick sample of the various tools on the ‘sustainability army knife’ include:

  • Improved risk identification and therefore a higher-quality risk response plan (you cannot plan a response for a sustainability risk you never identified)
  • Higher morale for the team
  • Better recognition/understanding by the project team of the project’s product
  • More connectivity with the organization’s mission/vision (leading to more of the above)
  • Eased transition into operation of the project’s product
  • Reduced use of resources for the project itself (e.g. applying lean techniques to the project’s execution)

Those are just a few of valuable tools that can fold out from your “sustainability thinking” army knife.

Agree or not, we hope you’ll enjoy the analogy.

And remember, a Swiss Army knife never forgets.