Driving Project, Program, and Portfolio Success: The Sustainability Wheel [Book Review]

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I’ve been reading a lot about linking projects to strategy and project leadership over the past year. It’s as if the C-suite have suddenly woken up to the idea that project managers, program managers and the portfolio office actually turn up to work and deliver ‘strategy’ every day.

Assuming there is that link to business goals, project leaders turn visions into reality and move everyone that bit closer to the goal.

I usually see ‘strategy’ used to mean ‘making more money’ in the form of growing market share, return on investment and so on. Until now, no one has really been talking about strategies to deliver sustainability benefits.

Driving Project, Program, and Portfolio Success: The Sustainability Wheel, a new book by Dave Shirley and Rich Maltzman, is the one that changes all that.

Integrating sustainability in the portfolio

Projects are not very good at integrating long term strategy because they are short term endeavors. This is the trouble with many disconnects between the strategists and the people who actually approve the work against this year’s targets, and it’s especially true of sustainability which is a long term thing.

This book helps managers at all levels think about the way sustainability can weave seamlessly into your projects and programs. It talks about how to:

  • evaluate your existing sustainability initiatives
  • measure your efforts
  • determine priorities
  • align those priorities to organizational strategy and an overall mission
  • link it all to an achievable delivery framework through project, program and portfolio management.

You are more empowered than you think

That probably sounds like a lot of work but you are more empowered to build sustainability into your projects than you think. The authors use the great phrase: “Don’t be a Dorothy.”

They are referring to Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. She had all the tools available to her to get home – her shoes. She just didn’t know how to, or feel able to use them.

Translate that to your workplace and think about how you can apply sustainability to your projects. Basically, just go ahead and do it, show the value and then see what other people say about it.

This goes for a lot of project management. It took me a while to realize that I was more empowered than I thought and that I could make a lot of decisions that wouldn’t be questioned. Step out of your comfort zone with green project management and do the same.

The authors write:

Guess what, project managers? Don’t undersell yourself! … You are change agents. By definition you are change agents. Projects, by definition, are about change. Nobody would do a project in the first place if they didn’t want something to change. You are wearing ruby slippers! You had the power all along! And not only that, your enterprises are likely already promoting sustainability at the highest level, so by being a change agent and making decisions (for example) to use a slightly more expensive vendor or material because it has more a sustainable long term-result, you are actually acting in line with your top management’s strategic objectives… At the higher echelons of your company, they’re rooting for YOU to be the change.

The authors go on to say that you can check this for yourself. They bet that within three clicks on your company’s internet site you’ll find a page devoted to sustainability, the business’ green credentials, corporate social responsibility or something similar.

Why not check now for yourself?

The only slight flaw I can see in all of this is that the ruby slippers were a film studio invention: L. Frank Baum’s original text had Dorothy wearing silver shoes. So as a Children’s Literature graduate I’d prefer to see them referencing the original shoes, but hey, I’m fussy about books like that.

Ranking and benchmarking your sustainability projects

If you don’t know where to start, the book includes practical guidance for environmental management plans, stressing importance of ongoing review and management, all of which dovetails perfectly into program management approaches.

Chapter 3 even includes examples of companies managing and living their sustainability plans so you can learn from their experiences.

The book includes a detailed chapter on measurement, rankings and industry benchmarking, enabling you at company level to benchmark your performance against others.

“Benchmarking is a tool to help determine whether the company is performing particular functions and activities sustainably (or with sustainability), [and] whether the costs of being more sustainable are in line with competitors doing the same,” the authors write.

Communicating about sustainability

Maltzman and Shirley talk about the importance of communicating emotionally about sustainability but in a controlled way. They recommend being ‘emotionally aware’ of what you are saying and what others are hearing and share the following tips:

  • Research and assess the external sustainability climate
  • Understand the climate of sustainability within your own organization
  • Stay positive with your messages
  • Communicate clearly and effectively.

Listen for ways to use sustainability as a differentiator between you and the competition, uncover new technologies to help and focus on long-term bottom line savings.

At a more operational level you can look at how sustainability will make your job easier and more efficient.

The Sustainability Radar

The final chunk of the book is probably the most useful if you want to rank your performance and plan how to improve it.

The Sustainability Radar™ offers portfolio offices and project teams a visual way of scoring your enterprise on the pillars of sustainability practice. The authors present 20 potential operational modes making it easy to understand and interpret your current position on what they call the ‘sustainability wheel’.

You can score yourself and as long as you are honest about it you’ll be able to easily understand where you are today. Then there are practical and pragmatic solutions and reflection on how organizations can improve in maturity and commitment.

I flicked quickly through this section because unless you do have plans to evaluate yourself then it’s only mildly interesting to read how you can improve, and there are a lot of operational modes to get through.

The flip side is that if you do the work you’ll have everything you need to assess, grow, deliver and measure ongoing sustainability through your project, program and portfolio structure in one book.

In summary, this is a well-researched and thoughtful book that discusses the six interrelated dimensions of sustainability integration. The authors offer a workable guide for creating a sustainability strategy and linking it to an achievable delivery framework through project, program and portfolio management.

Buy on Amazon.