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Strategic vs. Project-Based Approach to Sustainability: Part 1

There are two “standard” ways to implement a sustainability program. Organizations are inclined to either establish a sustainability team or task a certain department to carry the weight. More often than not, the approach is hybrid. The problem arises when there is a lack of balance between the two, or worse when one or the other is chosen exclusively. Which is the better approach: teams committed to strategic planning or operations departments tasked to work in a silo to implement individual projects to show return on investment? In this two-part series you will learn how to steer clear the pitfalls and help pinpoint the ideal balance between taking the strategic versus project-based approach to sustainability.

The Strategic Approach

Sustainability leaders and sustainability teams often get stuck in planning and strategizing for too long — not taking action or assigning specific parties responsible for implementation soon enough. In turn, they develop these things called “BHAGs” (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). These sustainability “BHAGs” usually have the following characteristics:

Biting off more than you can chew– Sustainability leaders are holistic thinkers. Planning and strategizing goals, programs, tasks, and events is what they do best. However, sometimes their broad perspective can lead them down a path of over planning and over strategizing. Sustainability leaders like to solicit feedback and approval from multiple parties. However, with size comes, bigger ideas, complexity and the potential for a longer path to implementation. Recommendation: Take a step back to look at the plan you have developed and be conservative, critical, and pessimistic as to what activities make it on the final list. Define what is important — now, and in three years.

Disconnect with the “do-ers” – As a point addressed in an earlier article, Facility Managers the New Sustainability Champions, sustainability leaders tend to fall short in visualizing their ideas and plans from inception all the way through to implementation. What sounds great in a planning session may not turn out well once you ask the “do-ers” to implement. This creates a resistance to change and disconnection with the value of the project. Recommendation: It is critical to visualize the multiple stakeholders that will be involved and affected including the end user, staff, customers, and client. Also, limit the feedback that you solicit to the specific stakeholders likely to be involved. (More on the “do-ers” in PART TWO of this series next month.)

Lack of business benefit – Unfortunately, this is still an oversight for sustainability leaders. Remember, the 3 P’s convey the foundation of sustainability. People, Planet, and PROFIT. Recommendation: It is important for organizations to remember that profit does not always come as direct financial profit as we have been trained to think of it. Indirect profit that increases other facets of the business be it quality, experience, or service need to be quantified. These activities that generate indirect profit are at times more valuable than those that have short term financial returns.

Lack of measurability or ability to quantify – To fuel the case stated above, sustainability leaders must create effective tracking, testing, checks and balances for all goals and tasks. Recommendation: Even if at the end goals are not met and projects have failed, measurement creates a record as to why they were not successful and can be marked as to not revisit the same method again.

Overall, a solution to prevent the strategic approach from getting out of hand is to create a clearing house for goals, ideas and BHAGs. The trick is really sticking to the strategic priorities of the organization:

1. What is most relevant in the specific industry sector?

2. What value and strength will it bring to the product or service delivered?

3. What is feasible to implement as defined by time, cost and capacity?

4. Avoid overdoing and over-committing at the expense of level of impact.

5. Strike a balance between a strategic and project-based approach.

Next month, an analysis of the flip side: a project-based approach to sustainability developed in a silo that is focused on purely implementation.

Jeff Benavides is a LEED Accredited Professional with a specialty in Operations & Maintenance (LEED AP O+M). He is senior project manager at ecoPreserve: Building Sustainability, which provides strategic planning, program management and building certification consulting services to incorporate sustainability into organizations and existing buildings of all sizes. One of its keystone projects includes managing the LEED EBOM certification for the 2nd largest convention center in North America, the Orlando/Orange County Convention Center. Follow @ecoPreserve and @jbgreenpm on twitter and at www.ecoPreserve.net

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2 thoughts on “Strategic vs. Project-Based Approach to Sustainability: Part 1

  1. Jeff, Enjoyed reading this first part. Would add that some clienr sustainability advocates / evangelists also focus on the wrong things to measure due to some misguided marketing opportunity or pet project. Focus on the big stuff… the volume.

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