The Environmentally Aware Project Manager

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Michelle Symonds
Michelle Symonds spent the first part of her career working in IT and IT Project Management in the oil industry and investment banking on complex global projects involving the management of outsourced project teams. She now runs a digital marketing company with particular expertise in SEO.

Much of a project manager’s time is taken up with juggling limited resources so it’s a natural progression to think about project managers being environmentally aware and helping to use the Earth’s limited natural resources to best effect.

Project Management is often concerned with managing limited resources – there never seems to be enough time allocated to complete the project or to complete individual tasks within the project. Neither does there ever seem to be enough budget to cover everything that needs to be done to deliver the project successfully. Even those projects that start off on-track with time and costs very often veer off course when the inevitable change requests start to roll in.

In many parts of the world we have already become used to the idea of recycling our household waste and large organisations are taking the recycling of waste seriously too, particularly electronic waste. This is even more true with the introduction of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) in Europe and the UK. These WEEE regulations aim to cut the amount of e-waste going to landfill and reuse the valuable components of electronic gadgets in a more sustainable way to create a circular economy instead of the more typical linear economy we have been used to. So corporations are increasingly dealing with their e-waste in an ethical and sustainable manner but wouldn’t it be better if we restricted our use of precious resources in the first place so we had less to recycle or reuse?

So how can we integrate an awareness of the environment into project management?

Perhaps the first step is to ensure that every decision made on a project is viewed from an environmental perspective. From the basic decisions on how to share and distribute project documentation right up to the design and production methods for the end product, especially where these end products are electrical or electronic items.

A simple way to make a start is to display a small message at the bottom of every email reminding the reader not to print it out unless absolutely necessary. And the obvious next step is to always use electronic documentation, never paper copies. There may be some resistance to this, particularly in meetings discussing requirements when everyone wants their own paper copy to make their own comments on. But consider this – how many of those attending the meeting already have a laptop, iPad or other electronic device that could easily take the place of a paper document?

And what about travelling (particularly flying) to meetings when video-conferencing is so readily available. We could probably all minimise our own personal carbon footprints by keeping flying for only those really essential project meetings.

But being an environmentally aware project manager is not simply about these basic and obvious steps. It is also about viewing the product to be delivered in an environmental light, particularly where production methods may not be energy-efficient or where the end-product itself may not be energy-efficient, for example, by constantly mining new metals when, in fact, it is more efficient to re-use certain metals from old, discarded equipment.

The benefits of energy-efficient production methods and end-products are not purely environmental ones. There can be significant cost reductions to this approach and the bottom line is always easy to sell to stakeholders. Outdated production methods can often be upgraded to provide substantial savings over time.

Take as an example Apple which, as an organisation, is dedicated to the productions of mobile devices and other products that are energy efficient. The energy that a device uses when plugged in adds to the environmental footprint of the firm that produced the device. That energy consumed also contributes to the environmental footprint of the owner of the device so by producing and using an energy efficient product the owner benefits by a reduction in their electricity bills and the business benefits from the lower costs of energy-efficient production. Both the producer and the user jointly contribute to a lowering of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and consequently to a lowering of the environmental impact.

So every project has the opportunity to improve its environmental credentials in both small and large ways and a professionally trained project manager adept at making the most of limited resources is well-placed to have an influence over decisions, large and small, that might have an environmental impact on projects that they lead and direct.

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