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Project Sponsors are the Key to Unlocking Sustainable Project Management

Project Sponsors are the Key to Unlocking the Potential of Sustainable Project Management

In recent months, there has been an uptick in interest in sustainable project management.  In 2022, GPM has seen a 20% increase in downloads of our P5 Standard for sustainable project management. GPM training, both in person and online, is growing in popularity, as evident in the growth of certification numbers this year. Additionally, the number of International Project Management forums, symposiums, and conferences that have made sustainability a central theme are very encouraging.

Ten years ago, sustainable projects and sustainable project management were merely topics at conferences, relegated to “other interests” [read that as fringe topics]. In the early days, Individuals such as Tom Mochal, Gilbert Silvius, Ron Schipper, Richard Maltzman, Dave Shirley were the most outspoken advocates on this topic (and continue to be). Of course, we at GPM have been with them beating this drum loudly since 2009…

I believe that thanks to all of our combined efforts, coupled with the advancing impacts of climate chaos and the awareness brought to the mainstream by international treaties and the SDGs, the profession is awakening to the reality that projects and project management are crucial to advancing regenerative development.

But…

The movement to advance sustainable project management needs an unsung hero, and that hero is none other than the project sponsor.

You know… the person who gets voluntold (being told you are being volunteered) to sponsor a project, given little to no training, very little support, but is reassured with a high five at the kick-off meeting and then is never heard from again.  Ok… This is oozing with hyperbole, but I’m not that far off, am I?

The Global Alliance for the Project Professions or GAPPS published a guiding framework for project sponsors in 2015, and it was nothing short of brilliant.  We use it all the time here at GPM.  In this framework, they define the sponsor as “…an individual who may be called funder, owner, client, senior responsible owner. The person appointed as a sponsor typically has a permanent position within the organization.” “The role of project sponsor is generally considered an additional, part-time role.”

That last sentence, “additional, part time role”, is one of the core reasons why sponsors are often found on wanted posters like this one.

 

Missing Project Sponsor

 

Sponsors need for support must be recognized and acted upon now.  With Project work estimated at 57% of global GDP in 2022, the emphasis and reliance on projects has never been higher.

GAPPS further states that “the organization’s governance practices should make it clear who the sponsor is, how the sponsor is selected, their accountabilities, and responsibilities as well as the relationships between the sponsor and the project manager and between the project and the business.

Governance practices should ensure that the sponsor “has authority, credibility, and/or position necessary to perform the role.” Establishing the right relationships, using the authority to move change forward, and having the position from which to do it effectively are critical to project success. In our method we add one little wrinkle, and it has to do with positioning.

Adapted from ISO 21502 Project, Programme And Portfolio Management – Guidance On Project Management

 

The image above is borrowed from the refreshed ISO 21502 (Guidance on Project Management).  In the ISO version, the project sponsor circle is above the project manager.  I understand why they did that.  If you refer to the GAPPS text, “the sponsor funder, owner, client, senior responsible owner” hierarchically, it makes sense to put the sponsor above the PM.  However, in practice, as project managers are starting to make the move from the cellar to the C-suite (thank you Adam Boddison for that phrase) and are becoming more strategic in nature, the sponsor and PM relationship must also evolve into a peer-partnership.

In Projects integrating Sustainable Methods (PRiSM), outlined in our book Sustainable Project Management, we advocate that during the pre-project phase, the sponsor and PM are selected and at that time begin their collaboration (see below). You can also get this nifty book on amazon in hard copy or kindle, or direct download as a PDF here

The PRiSM Method’s Pre-Project Phase flow

I get it, sponsors are important and they aren’t given enough support.  What is your point?

One of the largest challenges in advancing sustainable project management is what is referred to as “the sustainability premium”.  This is the false notion that sustainability costs more. Fun fact, if you understand benefits management and benefits realization, it is clear that sustainability is an investment that pays for itself over and over again, so “costs more” is a red herring.

The challenge is very real however.  And due to this, we need to do two things.

  1. Project managers must provide sponsors with the information to make informed decisions to advocate on the project’s behalf. If done correctly, we can ensure that the right resources are in place to mitigate social, environmental, and economic risks so that project processes as well as the project outcome are sustainable.
  2. We must provide education and training on sustainability to project sponsors so they can effectively connect the project to organizational sustainability strategy and advocate for project work as materiality in ESG and sustainability reporting.

It is time to bring the sponsor role out from the shadows and adorn the role with the importance that it holds.

Dr. Joel Carboni

Dr. Joel Carboni has over 24 years of experience in project, program, and portfolio management, having led Aerospace, Finance, Government, and Technology initiatives. He has a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Environment, is a Certified Senior Project Manager (IPMA Level B®), and Certified Green Project Manager (GPM®). He is the founder and president of GPM Global and the President Emeritus of the International Project Management Association USA (IPMA-USA) He is a medal of honor recipient from Universidad Autonoma Lisboa, AI Media's Leading Advisor Award 2017, the 2015 World CSR Congress Leadership Award, 2014 HRD Leadership & Training Award, and 2013 IPMA Achievement Award. He has lectured on or taught sustainable project management in 50 countries worldwide.

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