Strategic vs. Project-based Approach to Sustainability Part II

by | Jul 26, 2012

In this two-part series, we are trying to strike a balance between taking a strategic versus project-based approach to sustainability. Last month, I addressed the Strategic Approach in Part I of this article. In this part, we continue to dissect standard sustainability tactics by looking at a project-based approach.

The Project-based Approach

Many times organizations stumble into sustainability through grassroots efforts or via the standard operations departments’ goal to reduce costs through energy efficient retrofits. In Part 1 (LINK) the groups tasked to accomplish these goals are referred to as the “do-ers”. Sustainability success is realized through a series of independent projects and tasks. This often proves as a way to show small achievements and make the case for larger projects. So why is this considered a poor approach when things are getting done? Because this approach typically results in short-term success with a narrow scope. It is crucial to beware the following pitfalls of a strictly project-based approach.

Acting without planning or vision – In direct opposition to a strategic approach, a project based approach is reactionary and usually taken when there is a lack of interdepartmental support and involvement. It’s like a sustainability leader saying “we are implementing a green purchasing policy” before the organization executives or departmental leaders understand the purpose and its importance. There is also disconnect when programs and initiatives are solely led from an operations focused group or the “do-ers.” They tend to weigh decisions based on short-term results and not visualize the overall and continuing purpose.  Recommendation: Before you get ahead of yourself and go full speed ahead with deep and expensive retrofits or robust efforts such as greening your supply chain, have a clear plan that is incremental. This will allow you to stay focused and clear as you work toward short terms goals and a long term vision.

Working in silo – Organizations that enter sustainability by immediately tasking an individual or department  to “make the company green” usually end up handing the responsibility to departments that are operationally focused. These broadly refer to departments that include operations directors, supply managers, process managers and facility managers since by nature of their roles, responsibility for the management of staff, resources, energy, materials, water, and waste naturally fall within their scope.  This style of assignment leads to vertical project focus which can neglect integrated communication among other departments and groups. Efforts will never expand enough to tie in with the overall organization mission and will fall short of team effort and engagement. Recommendation:  It is critical to involve multiple stakeholders, especially those that hold strategic roles that can help visualize project success at the larger level of the organization. Just be careful not to let the strategic approach throw you off task as I mentioned in in Part 1 (LINK).

Strapped to Short Term Benefits

This is epitome of the “quick fix” or “putting out the fire”. Whether they are financial or qualitative benefits, we are constantly looking for the quickest return on investment of time and money. Often times we get caught up thinking about the short term and end up jeopardizing quality. By doing this we end up finding that value-engineering or cutting corners is acceptable. Success of any project comes from carefully planned, durable and reliable solutions. Recommendation: We have to get out of the mindset of the quick fix. Consider the durability and efficiency over the life cycle of your project. If you are being pressured to deliver quick results, start with those low and no cost projects that are the “quick fixes” and ease into those longer term engagements that require some time to mature and create the value. Just make sure you have a clear case that will hold up through the growing period.

Overall, a solution to prevent teams from a solely implementing a project-based approach is to

1. Create a brief strategic plan that has long term goals and connects with the organization’s mission.

2. Realize the overall value, functionality, and durability of your projects.

3. Increase visibility and collaboration of your projects to build the case for organization wide initiatives.

Seeing the clear differences between the two approaches to sustainability covered in Part I and Part II should tell you that there is not a “better” option. In fact, it’s crucial to have aspects of both. The best way to achieve that balance is to have a diversified team throughout planning and implementation of projects and sustainability programs so that both thinkers and doers can weigh in their expertise at the appropriate times.

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 on twitter and at

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