Our brain is designed to accept new concepts – even sustainability

“Even the dogs may eat of the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table;
and in these days, when the rich in knowledge eat such specialized food at such separate tables,
only the dogs have the chance of a balanced diet.”
Sir Geoffrey Vickers 1965

For many the notion of sustainability is a stretch.

  • What is sustainability?
  • Why is it important?
  • Why do I need to pay any attention to it?
  • What can I or do I need to do?

For some the phrase you can’t teach an old dog new tricks comes to mind, and the old ways of business and management are more comfortable and seem just fine.

Image result for can't teach an old dog new tricks

According to researchers at Dartmouth University, you actually can teach an old dog new tricks.

New research clearly illustrates that even in adulthood our brains are designed to be physically reshaped or molded to deal with the requirements of our job.

“To get a sense of how impressive these physical changes can be, consider the brains of a particular group of men and women who work in London: the city’s cab drivers.

They undergo four years of intensive training to pass the “Knowledge of London”, one of society’s most difficult feats of memory. [Students of The Knowledge typically spend three to four hours a day reciting theoretical journeys.]

The Knowledge requires aspiring cabbies to memorize London’s extensive roadways, in all their combinations and permutations.

This is an exceedingly difficult task: The Knowledge covers:

  • 320 different routes through the city,
  • 25,000 individual streets, and
  • 20,000 landmarks and points of interest – hotels, theatres, restaurants, embassies, police stations, sports facilities, and anywhere a passenger is likely to want to go.

The unique mental challenges of The Knowledge sparked the interest of a group of neuroscientists from University College London, who scanned the brains of several cab drivers. The scientists were particularly interested in a small area of the brain called the hippocampus – vital for memory, and, in particular, spatial memory.

The scientists discovered visible differences in the cabbies’ brains: in the drivers, the posterior part of the hippocampus had grown physically larger than those in the control group – presumably causing their increased spatial memory.

Brain Hippocampus

The researchers also found that the longer a cabbie has been doing his job, the bigger the change in that brain region, suggesting that the result was not simply reflecting a pre-existing condition of people who go into the profession, but instead resulted from practice. The cab-driver study demonstrates that adult brains are not fixed in place, but instead can reconfigure so much that the change is visible to the trained eye.”

Below is a fun link to the PBS clip from The Brain with David Eagleman” that describes this…


So why is this interesting for sustainability?  At best sustainability is challenging to describe mainly due to its scope. Some languages and cultures do not even have a word for it. The challenge though is what do we mean by sustainability?  What is the breadth and depth of it?  Just looking at some of the areas sustainability covers can be daunting:

GPM P5 Model - Clean

Sustainability is a term that represents a standard of living for today that does not compromise the needs of future generations.

An important thing for organizations is the awareness and appreciation of the sustainability risks to organizations in terms of threatening their brands and their assets, and how they prioritize and choose how to mitigate those risks.


Specifically with sustainable projects, it is ensuring both the project is managed sustainably and the output, capability,  outcome and benefits are sustainable.  Also though that the benefits are maximized to deliver the greatest value or worth at a reasonable cost.

Output to Benefit Transition


Put another way, maximize value and benefits and minimize threats

Sustainability Benefits - Risk


There are many ways to delve into the world of sustainability.  GPM Global provides a number of opportunities for executives, through our Sustainable Sponsorship seminars, through organizational PSM3 sustainable change delivery workshops, and through practitioner training for your project, programme and portfolio managers.


Photograph: Alamy

Carboni, J., Gonzalez, M., & Hodgkinson, J. (2013) The GPM reference guide to sustainability in Project Management. Fort Wayne: GPM Global. http://www.greenprojectmanagement.org/the-gpm-reference-guide-to-sustainability-in-project-management

Carboni, Joel (2014). The GPM P5™ Standard for Sustainability In Project Management. 1st ed. Fort Wayne: GPM Global.

Eagleman, D. (2015). Watch Full Episodes Online of The Brain with David Eagleman on PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/show/brain-david-eagleman/

Eagleman, David. The Brain: The Story of You. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

GPM. (2012). PRISM PRojects Integrating Sustainable Methods. Green Project Management Association.

Vickers, G. (1995). The Art of Judgment: A Study of Policy Making. book, SAGE Publications. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?id=BbDCQgAACAAJ

Wood, J. (2015). You Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks. Psych Central News. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/09/27/you-can-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks/45219.html


Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

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