Episode 120 – Taking Responsibility in Project Management

Episode #120
Original Air Date: 01.04.2021

34 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Karen Thompson, Nigel Williams

2021 is the International Year of Responsible Project Management. In this episode we explore what is meant by responsibility in the context of projects and project management. Karen Thompson and Nigel Williams are the co-creators of an innovative new initiative called Responsible Project Management. They share their thoughts on sustainability and how Responsible Project Management aims to accelerate achievement of sustainable development goals.

Responsible Project Management has launched a Manifesto that encourages researchers and practitioners to incorporate sustainability and social value into their current practice. Karen and Nigel share why they are engaging project managers, and not stakeholders or sponsors directly. They also give us recommendations on how to facilitate discussions advocating for projects to deliver less damaging and more beneficial outcomes. Another aspect they point out is that sustainable development has tended to focus on the environment; however, sustainable development goals also incorporate society and people. Our guests offer advice on some considerations responsible project management teams can be incorporating during the cycle of their projects to help accelerate the achievement of the sustainable development goals.

Dr Karen Thompson is a Senior Academic at Bournemouth University Business School in the UK. She has received professional recognition and awards for her research and educational practice at the intersection of Project Management and Sustainable Business. She is an Associate Editor for Project Management Research and Practice, Fellow of Advance HE, Fellow of the Association for Project Management, Member of the Project Management Institute (UK) and Project Management Expert for the Center for Project Management at the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

Dr Nigel L. Williams, PMP is the Reader in Project Management and Research Lead in the Organizations and Systems Management Subject Group at the University of Portsmouth. His research has examined Project Capability development, Project stakeholder interactions using social network analysis and Event Project Management. He currently co-leads the Responsible Project Management initiative.


Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"It’s no longer appropriate to be thinking about this just for the future. These impacts are here now. So we want to act on those. ... Responsible Project Management can help accelerate achievement of the sustainable development goals."

- Karen Thompson

"The obsession with project success and failure is a millstone around the neck of our profession that we need to get rid of."

- Nigel Williams

"If you work in something like projects, you deal quite a lot of uncertainties, and project managers have to create responses to a lot of unforeseen circumstances. So you really want to have managers who internalize the idea of responsibility, rather than simply relying on external perspectives on responsibility."

- Nigel Williams

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The podcast for project managers by project managers. How can practitioners incorporate sustainability and social value into their current practice? Karen Thompson and Nigel Williams are the co-creators of Responsible Project Management, an initiative that aims to accelerate achievement of sustainable development goals, encouraging responsibility in the context of projects and project management.


Table of Contents

02:12 … The History of Responsible Project Management
06:42 … Comparing Responsible Management to Corporate Social Responsibility
07:45 … Changing the Role of the Project Manager
10:43 … Correctly Defining Sustainability
12:24 … Who Might I be Hurting through This Work?
16:38 … Questions to Ask as a Responsible Project Manager
19:51 … When it’s Not about Success or Failure
22:19 … How to Raise Awareness amongst Stakeholders
24:48 … A Manifesto for Responsible Project Management
29:40 … 2021 The Year of Responsible Project Management
32:02 … Learn More about Responsible Project Management
33:13 … Closing

WENDY GROUNDS:  You’re listening to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds, and with me is Bill Yates.  And we’d like to wish you a very happy New Year.  This is 2021, and we hope it’s going to be a good one.

BILL YATES:  Oh, yes.  It’s got to be.

WENDY GROUNDS:  It’s got to be better.  We like to talk with experts who are doing new and exciting things in the world of project management.  And that brings us to today’s guests.  Dr. Karen Thompson is a senior academic at Bournemouth University Business School in the U.K.  She’s a project professional turned innovative educator.who has done a lot of research and education in managing projects sustainably.

And we have Dr. Nigel Williams, the Reader in Project Management and research lead at the University of Portsmouth.  Karen and Nigel co-lead the Responsible Project Management Initiative, which is aimed to encourage sustainability and social responsibility in an ethical manner by project managers.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, sustainability is a topic that we’ve hit on a few times.  And I know just recently we interviewed Scott Berkun, and we focused on his book, “How Design Makes the World.”  Berkun talked about four questions in that book, and the fourth question:  Who might be hurt by your work, now or in the future?  This conversation that we’re going to have today just goes right in line with that.  I think some projects produce amazing things, could be a product or a service.  But we don’t really think about the fallout.

We had conversations with Henk about the ocean cleanup project; right?  Episode 106.  Orbital space debris.  We talked with Dr. Heather about that problem in Episode 75.  We all want our cell phones to work.  We want to have GPS.  But what happens when the satellite dies?

Sustainability is something that we’re passionate about.  This kind of takes it to another level.  It’s challenging to me as a project manager to think about, okay, in my day-to-day work, how can I be considering these questions?  So I’m excited about this conversation.

WENDY GROUNDS: Not so long ago we spoke to Kaitlyn Bunker about the Islands Energy Program.  And that was also an incredible program where they’re really thinking about what is the good that we are bringing in our projects. And with that, let’s get talking to Karen and Nigel.

The History of Responsible Project Management

Karen, could you tell us a little bit about the history of Responsible Project Management, how you started it?

KAREN THOMPSON:  Yes, certainly.  Well, how it started was way back in 2017 I’d just finished my Ph.D.  And one of the things that I uncovered while doing that were all the claims that project management research – there were criticisms around it not being relevant enough to practice.  So in 2017 I held a sort of networking event where I brought together practitioners and researchers and educators for a sort of an event to try and start stimulating discussion around research. And making it more relevant to practice.

Sustainability wasn’t specifically on the agenda at that point.  But it’s something that’s been in the forefront of my mind for a very long time, and a great frustration, that projects contribute massively to economies around the world to change.  And if we don’t manage that change responsibly, then we’re contributing to degradation of the planet, social division and so forth.  So in 2018, in the summer, we held a workshop at Bournemouth University, where we brought together researchers, educators, practitioners to start exploring what being responsible might mean in the context of project management.

So several points we touched base with.  One were these 17 United Nations sustainable development goals, and another was the literature on responsible management.  The Business School at Bournemouth University were advanced signatories to PRME, which is the United Nations Principles of Responsible Management Education.  But project management has tended to develop over the years in something of a little bubble.  There’s been lots of developments in management that haven’t necessarily always found their way through into project management. Either the literature from an academic perspective or indeed from practice.  So that was partly where we started.

We chose the word “responsible” really to echo those sustainable development goals and responsible management ideas. Really also with the view that project management underwent a rethinking around 2003/4.  There was a network that was funded to start looking at issues and project failure and how that could be improved.  At the same time, interestingly, sustainable development went through a rethinking exercise.  As far as I know, the two initiatives were completely separate.  And both fields, one of the things they recognized was sort of a bit of a PR problem.  So sustainable development, it was recognized that it was the narrative that was causing a lot of problems.  So we’ve been talking about sustainability for a very long time.  But as is becoming ever more apparent, very little action had been taken.  The way it was defined was around future generations.

Well, the future we were talking about in the 1980s is now.  We need to refine our definition.  It’s no longer appropriate to be thinking about this just for the future.  These impacts are here now.  So we want to act on those.  And similarly, the problem is a well-managed project, the project manager and the project management is invisible.  So we firmly believe that Responsible Project Management can help accelerate achievement of the sustainable development goals.  And the other aspect that I’m sure Nigel will pick up on in a moment is that sustainable development has tended to focus on the environment.  Now, actually, if you look at the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, you’ll see an awful lot of them are about society and about people.

NIGEL WILLIAMS:  Right.  I’ve been involved in the project management community for some time.  I used to run Organizational Project Management PMI for a bit, and stuff.  And I found out all the conversations that were happening there were pretty much the same, that there’s lots of discussion about project success.  There’s a lot of discussion about tools and techniques.  It felt we’re having the same conversation over and over.  So there were developments happening in the general management world that weren’t really reflected in project management.  I think the last big think was Agile maybe.

The idea of responsibility in management is a long-debated issue from the early conception of modern management.  And even from the ‘50s there were lots of debates as to what is the social responsibility of business.  So a little later on we developed corporate social responsibilities where organizations had an official stance as to how they should deal with communities and so on. 

Comparing Responsible Management to Corporate Social Responsibility

So how responsible management differs from corporate social responsibility is that it looks at managers, individual managers, who take ownership of environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and enact them in their daily practice in an ethical manner.  So that’s where we separate responsible management from corporate social responsibility.  Now, in project management, it’s doubly so because project managers have a lot of uncertainties that they deal with that can’t necessarily be prescribed in advance by the organization.

So if you work in a traditional operational environment, a lot of the organizational rules can be scripted in advance because a lot is known in advance.  If you work in something like projects, you deal quite a lot of uncertainties, and project managers have to create responses to a lot of unforeseen circumstances.  So you really want to have managers who internalize the idea of responsibility, rather than simply relying on external perspectives on responsibility.

Changing the Role of the Project Manager

BILL YATES:  Karen and Nigel, I can already feel the tension of the project manager who has certain goals and objectives that they have to reach.  And now we’re saying, okay, as you do that, there’s a whole ‘nother dimension that we want you to consider as you carry out your project.  What is the impact you’re having on society, on the environment, on those stakeholders or those people that are even part of the project team?  I’m delighted to have you guys talking with us about this.  Just jumping right into that, how does this concept of being a responsible project manager change the role of the project manager?

KAREN THOMPSON:  I’m very aware that the role of the project manager is already very stressful.  Managing cost, time, and quality would be the traditional dimensions we would work in.  So I was very keen that we didn’t simply ask project managers to do more because they’re already stressed.  We’ve been talking about sustainability for a very long time.  Many people are behaving very sustainably in their own lives, and then come into work and have to act differently when they are managing projects.

So we said all along this was about changing the way project managers think and developing new types of project manager who didn’t try and necessarily do it all themselves, but became very good at facilitating. Facilitating discussions, facilitating other people to engage with the conversations about their projects.  So one of the first changes we identified was the fact that stakeholders are recognized as part of projects; should be widened to include the environment, local communities, and wider society.  And there were already, when we started, a number of good examples of this.  In some cases there was perhaps one recognized stakeholder that would embody several of these roles.  And that is a little bit problematic because there can be tensions between the environmental interests. And so take use of natural resources or biodiversity may be at direct odds with the needs of the local community or wider society.

So actually having all those resting on one person feels a bit like just shifting the problem onto somebody else.  But the fundamental point I’d like to make is that project managers need to recognize their role in and their ability in raising awareness of some of the factors.  Normally a project manager is operating with a defined role.  When we first started on this journey, many people came back and said, “Oh, but that’s not my role.  That’s the role of the project sponsor or my client.”

But then very rapidly our audiences started to say, well, actually, we have control over a great deal of things.  At the very least we can deliver on what is prescribed in a responsible manner.  But many others started to recognize that by engaging stakeholders in a wider range of conversations, they could at least raise awareness of the impacts of projects.

NIGEL WILLIAMS:  Just to add that there’s no such thing as a generic project manager.

BILL YATES:  That’s true.

NIGEL WILLIAMS:  That’s like saying the “average person.”  That doesn’t exist.  Every context is unique, every project’s unique, every setting’s unique.  And of course your scope for action will vary by the setting that you’re in.

Correctly Defining Sustainability

WENDY GROUNDS:  We have done some podcasts on sustainability projects, it’s a complex concept.  Most people just think of the environment when you think of sustainability.  So share your thoughts on exactly what sustainability is and how is it taught.

KAREN THOMPSON:  I like the really simple definition.  We’ve worked closely with the Association for Sustainability Practitioners.  That is a U.K.-based organization, I believe.  But they have links with some various global partners.  I like the really simple definition of sustainability, which is “Enough for everyone, forever.”  Because that clearly focuses on people, on society.  And I know when I first started on my sustainability journey, people tell, “Go save the planet, Karen.”  And I said, “Actually, it’s not about the planet.  The planet will be fine with or without humans.  This is about saving humanity, society, and the lives we live.”

NIGEL WILLIAMS:  Essentially we integrate both the social and environmental dimensions of sustainability.  You’d find that some people think of only the environmental version where you look at reduce, reuse, recycle; and others tend to look at the social value aspect.  We feel that there isn’t one without the other.

KAREN THOMPSON:  Indeed, when we took our ideas about responsible project management to a group of local councilors, they were very honest in saying that they’d been focused on the social issues in their local area. And hadn’t given any thought to the impact that might be having on the environment, and didn’t recognize their role at all in the bigger picture.

One of the things we’ve been keen to do is to try and say, well, we’re not going to criticize anybody.  We especially won’t tell people it’s too little, too late.  Because every little bit that every person, every organization can do matters.  It’s much more widely recognized now.

Who Might I be Hurting through This Work?

BILL YATES:  There was a quote by Scott Berkun, from his book, “How Design Makes the World.”  And the quote that I thought was so relevant was inventions, so things that come from projects.  “Inventions are often Trojan horses bringing unforeseen problems along for the ride.”  And I think about some of the times projects that we lead, certainly speaking for myself, I did not anticipate the outcome.  I could see the rosy picture of, okay, we finished the project, and we’ve had great deliverables.  Now the customer’s going to use this new capability.  My mindset was, okay, now I’m done with this project.  Let’s move on to the next thing.

But there’s a shift in mindset that you guys are asking for which is, okay, take a longer look at what this invention or what the result of this project is going to bring about. How do you get people like me to stop and consider and look at that question of who might I be hurting through this work, or who might I be hurting in the future? 

NIGEL WILLIAMS:  So we have evidence now of project managers who are engaged in activism against their own companies.  Amazon and facial recognition, for example.  We see also evidence in construction projects where project managers are challenging their organization or shareholders in terms of the materials that they use and so on.  There’s evidence of this emerging behavior where individual project managers and engineers quite often on projects saying these long-term issues. While they might be uncertain, we don’t like where this is going.  And until this is clarified in sufficient detail, I’m not going to proceed.

Because what can happen – and in the U.K. I’ll talk about Grenfell Tower.  There was a fire, middle of London, that building refurbish was done maybe 10 years ago.  The fire happened three years ago.  And now those project managers and individuals are now in court, trying to explain their actions retroactively.  So one of the things you have to kind of recognize, even if you are get-it-done type of person, that what might be acceptable today is not acceptable tomorrow.  So if you’re not using your expertise and your skills to the best of your ability to deal with both entirely foreseen things. For example, facial recognition can be used very negatively; you don’t need to be Nostradamus to predict that could end badly – versus things that might be unforeseen, but you’ve heard about it.

So you do want to register your discomfort with particular areas.  When societal norms change, and I think we recognize that it can change quite quickly. You may be called to account for those actions because you’ve got mainframes running for 40 years.  You’ve got COBOL code from the ‘70s that’s still working.  You’ve got buildings that stay up for 50 years.  So your actions don’t disappear.  In the old days, they said architects bury their failure with ivy.  Now people are taking that ivy off, and you’ve got to explain your failure.  So even if you’re a get-it-done type of person, it doesn’t mean that your responsibility ends with just putting out the product.

BILL YATES:  Let me just throw another example in, too.  Recently I watched “Social Dilemma” on Netflix.  It’s kind of a semi-documentary.  You look at the Internet, the Internet is a beautiful invention that is incredibly powerful.  It’s changed all of our lives.  It’s free, but it’s not really free.  There are advertisements that drive that.  So for those project managers, and many of those were interviewed in “Social Dilemma,” we look at the reality that they’re facing, which is this is a great thing.  This is a powerful tool.  We can use this in positive ways.  But man, the flipside of it is very dangerous.  It’s almost as if, as a project manager, I need to give pause, I need to give space in my project to consider the negative, the fallout that could come from this product or this result that I’m creating.

KAREN THOMPSON:  Yeah, and if that’s the stick, then I think the carrot is, even if you’re a get-it-done project manager, actually the challenges to delivering your project on time and on budget are increasing.  We’re seeing social activism, not only within companies, like Nigel’s just talked about, but externally.  And then another example from the U.K. would be HS2, a particular road near us that was the subject of protests for decades.  So actually the challenges to delivering projects on time and on budget are increasing.  So that’s the carrot, if you like.  My project managers need to take some of this stuff seriously.

Questions to Ask as a Responsible Project Manager

BILL YATES:  So given that, what are some of the new questions that maybe I don’t have in my template or my checklist of questions that, as a responsible project manager, I need to be asking when I start a project?

KAREN THOMPSON:  Funnily enough, I have a list of 25 questions.  I know Nigel’s going to laugh because he’s dismissed these.  I knew my team project questions would come back to haunt you, Nigel.  So, but we can start asking questions about the supply chain, for example.  I mean, one of the reasons why it’s so much harder to green a project is because there are so many different organizations involved.  Quite often it is seen as a one-time initiative.  So actually looking at suppliers, supply chains may be much harder on projects.  There may be hundreds and thousands even of supply chains that you have to look at.  So that’s one area where you can look at how green your materials are.  Others are around social value.

I think also just going back to the earlier discussion, is projects are usually very solutions focused.  And actually, before we jump into delivering solutions, we need to better understand the problem.  I’ve always argued that projects are about change.  Now, going back to the 1980s, ‘90s, when I was a project manager in information technology and systems, that was considered heresy.  It was, oh, we’re just here to deliver a new computer system.  Well, if that doesn’t actually deliver change in the business, why are we doing it?

And I think those sorts of questions are much harder to answer now, but are even more important.  Even a well-run project that delivers what it’s supposed to has still used a massive amount of resources.  So we need to look at that.  Clearly when you look at the latest statistics on rates of project failure, I mean, it’s embarrassing.  As a profession, it is embarrassing.  So clearly those projects that start, use resources, and are then stopped. You might argue sometimes that should be counted as a success, if actually the wrong project is being done.  But we need to ask questions much earlier.

So I think certainly the way in which the profession needs to change is, and we’ve been arguing this for decades. We need to get involved much earlier in the process and actually start asking those difficult questions about what are we really trying to do here.  What is the purpose of the project?  And one of the challenges that becomes very apparent once you start asking those sorts of questions is around what behavioral changes are needed to make this a success.  What does “good” look like?

And again, just simply putting in a computer system by itself doesn’t deliver any value at all.  You have to harness that with changes in behavior, changes in attitudes. And actually understanding the different perspectives on a project I think is really, really important.  Even today, that is still quite difficult for many project managers.  And we understand that if you’ve got a mortgage to pay and got to put food on the table. Clearly just walking away from a project that you consider is sort of in breach of your own values may not always be an option.  But I think actually understanding the extent to which you can act is important.

But also we have to be a lot more tolerant of failure.  I mean, we’ve seen lots of examples with the current pandemic, of course.  We’ve seen things that have tried that haven’t worked.  But actually just recognizing the level of uncertainty in projects, I mean, by definition, if we knew how to complete a project successfully, you probably wouldn’t need a project manager.

You can only plan up to the next point of uncertainty.  So we really need to start bringing that to the fore.  Nigel.

When it’s Not about Success or Failure

NIGEL WILLIAMS:  Right, yeah, let me add to that.  The obsession with project success and failure is a millstone around the neck of our profession that we need to get rid of.  It’s either projects are unique or they’re not.  It’s either a project is a type of operation, then we hand it over to operations managers; or it’s coordinating a group of stakeholders in a very complex social system to produce value for a particular set of stakeholders.  If it’s the latter, then the idea of success and failures is somewhat meaningless.  If the problem that we’re looking at is well understood, so you have a particular work package on a construction site, then certainly you can measure that against definable metrics.  But there are things that we engage that are not measured against definable metrics.  We apply them, and then we see that people have failed.

So expanding that onwards to responsibility and social value and stuff, there’s a tendency to bring everything to a single unitary function, like finance.  So you get stuff like this triple bottom line that says, okay, we’ll measure everything by value.  We’ll convert everything into numbers, and we’ll measure it that way.  Or you have the social value stuff, which essentially turns abstract things into financial numbers.  That’s not necessarily beneficial going forward.  It might be useful as a communication tool.  It’s useful to start the conversation.  But we won’t develop too much further if we just stay at that level.

BILL YATES:  Wendy, this reminds me of the conversations that we had with the project manager at the Kendeda Building at Georgia Tech.  Georgia Tech is a top engineering school in the United States of America, and it happens to be here in Atlanta.  And they built just a model of sustainability with this building.  And Nigel, as you’re describing the different levels or layers that we need to consider instead of just value of the product, you know, what the product does or what features it presents, but what was put into it? 

So there were several different layers that really describe value instead of just, okay, what’s the function of the building?  How long will this building last?  How frequently will we have to maintain it?  So there were several dimensions that were added to the success criteria, for that project.  And it just makes me very thoughtful as I think about how do I really define success?

WENDY GROUNDS:  That was where I heard that phrase, when Karen said “What does good look like?”  I was like, somebody has said that before on our podcast.  And that was Shan Arora, one of the guys on that podcast who said, “We’re just redefining what does good look like.”

KAREN THOMPSON:  We say it to the students all the time.

BILL YATES:  That’s good, yeah.

How to Raise Awareness amongst Stakeholders

WENDY GROUNDS:  I know we have project managers listening to this who are saying, “I would love to change what good looks like.  I would love to implement these ideals.”  But they have to accommodate the decisions of their stakeholders and their sponsors, and they’ve got to put food on the table for themselves personally.  So what advice would you give them on how they can raise awareness amongst their stakeholders, amongst their sponsors, when they’re feeling like it’s beyond their control?

NIGEL WILLIAMS:  So as we said before, there’s no such thing as a typical project manager.  Every institution’s unique.  I come from the energy sector.  So of course if you’re talking about the environmental sustainability, the energy sector’s not the top of anybody’s list.  Oil and gas is pretty much at the bottom. 

However, it’s a matter of recognizing the context that you’re in.  Your agency or your ability to act is not going to be infinite.  If you work a wind farm company, these conversations are part of the organizational discourse.  They happen every day.  If you work in a coal mine, it’s not.  So in the latter setting, while you can’t necessarily advocate for changing in the business model because of course your manager will get rid of you, and you may need that job, so you have to think in terms of, well, okay, what can we do in this situation to maximize my effectiveness?

So I can certainly start conversations.  I can do things like focus on efficiency projects that minimize impact.  If I’m working in oil and gas, issues like decommissioning is something that you can meaningfully make an intervention on.  That’s good for the business as well as minimizes the environmental impact.  And keep in mind that you’re never going to work on one project.  So even if you can’t necessarily make all of the changes now, you can influence delivery of subsequent projects.

KAREN THOMPSON:  Yeah.  And more people within organizations that are raising these concerns and issues. And at a very practical level this is why after our first workshop we put together “A Guide to Responsible Project Management.”  We were aware that writing academic papers, getting those published could take five years. So even then my view was we don’t have five years before the industry starts listening to what we’re saying.  And we were talking to practitioners anyway.

So we produced what can’t be considered an academic text.  It was meant for practitioners primarily.  But also it is being used in universities as a resource for students to start thinking about some of this.  So I don’t like using the word “quick and dirty.” But it was a quick. And it was actually quite a high-quality production because I had a graphic designer do the work on it. That was designed to get out there to practitioners and to anybody that was interested.

A Manifesto for Responsible Project Management

Then the following year we launched what we called “The Manifesto.”  We took the model of Agile because we looked at the biggest change there has been in project management.

So Agile Manifesto, that’s been the biggest change that started with a few signatures to a few principles.  So, I mean, as far as I’m aware, that still to this day hasn’t really got an academic underpinning.  But we thought, well, that drove the biggest change there has been in project management over the last 50 years.  So we went with that approach.  Some people have come onboard.  We’ve got well over a hundred individual signatories. We had some other universities that had signed up We’re starting to focus now more on trying to get corporate signatories.

One of the first things they came back to us and said, well, what we need is something to give our clients, our project sponsors to start opening some of these conversations up.  So one of our team works on responsible conversations and actually facilitating that.  So helping companies and project managers to where they can start having some of these conversations we think is a very practical thing we can do to help at this stage.

BILL YATES:  That’s great.  And I’m so glad you brought up the Manifesto.  I want to encourage listeners; you can download this PDF for free.  It’s on the website ResponsiblePM.com.  This really helps me get a feel for, okay, what are some practical characteristics or traits of projects that I need to think about?  What are some actions that I could take as the leader of this project team to raise awareness?  These 10 driving principles help me kind of get in the mindset of, all right, what does responsibility look like for me as a project manager?  What are some questions that I need to be asking?

And then, again, it’s all about leadership.  So if I’m asking those questions of my team members, if I’m bringing it up in our daily standup. If I’m bringing it up in my conversations with a customer, then it frees up my team members to go, oh, okay. I’ve always wanted to ask that. But I’ve felt bad about it because I feel like maybe it’s going to make the company look bad or something like that.  So this is a one-pager.  It’s a great sheet that helps us kind of get in the mindset of being a responsible project manager.  So well done.

NIGEL WILLIAMS:  From the beginning, we didn’t treat this like a typical academic exercise.  So we’ve worked with industry and with students because we saw our mission mostly as educating and informing and not necessarily creating new tools and techniques.  We don’t talk very much about tools and techniques.  There are enough tools and techniques out there that can be adapted and implemented into your work.

So we didn’t think we’d add any value by simply saying, “Look, here’s a tool, here’s 20 grand, and we’ll come teach you.”  We didn’t think that would carry the conversation forward.  We thought we’d work with industry to help confront some of these mindsets. Because what we also found is that people use tools as sort of a shield.  I’ve got a certification.  I’m using this process.  Therefore I’m responsible.  That really doesn’t work in the real world.  And if you’ve got to defend it in court 10 years from now, that’s also not going to help you.

KAREN THOMPSON:  Yeah, and the other thing that struck me as an educator in this field is just how developed world-centric most of the literature on project management is.  And that’s one of the things I’m keen to sort of try and broaden our approach. To see what we can learn from the developing world where projects still get done. And they have issues and factors that they have to take into account that many developed countries simply don’t  deal with.  So the top of that list probably is corruption, is natural disasters interfering with supply lines and things like that.  But nevertheless, I think there’s a great danger at the moment, when we need new thinking. We need to really consult with everybody around the world to really try and get a much broader perspective.

I quite like sort of the short definition of project management. Which is about getting things done.  Certainly we get very hung up on success and failure once you start sticking that label “Project Management” onto it.  So I think we can learn a lot from projects undertaken in the developing world.  A research project Nigel and I are still collaborating on is looking at how projects are run in refugee camps in other parts of the world.  But also we need new thinking.

I always encourage my students. Some people call me sort of brave for doing this, but that’s probably brave spelled F-O-O-L-I-S-H. And say, well, we can look at the textbooks. But they clearly don’t tell us exactly how to do it yet because we can’t manage projects successfully every time.  So your experience of what’s really mattered when you’ve been trying to get your project done is what we’re interested to hear about.  So we’re trying to find ways to surface that more and more.  I could hark back to Einstein. Who said the problems of today won’t be solved by the same thinking that creates them.

Again, as project managers, one of the practical things we can do is just sometimes challenging whatever is the sort of prevailing attitudes.  We’ve always done it this way, so we’ll do it this way again, that type of thinking.  We need to keep challenging it.  So this idea that you just go to experts – and this also links back to the idea of we’re very solutions-driven.  And actually there’s a much wider range of knowledge. That maybe if we better understood the problem we’re trying to solve, we could learn a lot more about how best to do that.

2021 The Year of Responsible Project Management

WENDY GROUNDS:  It’s the start of 2021.  And you guys have declared the Year of Responsible Project Management for 2021.   Can you tell us a bit about that, and your vision for that?

KAREN THOMPSON:  We came up with this idea when we were thinking about where to next.  2021 was looming at that point in time.  The age of 21 is the age at which many of our students graduate and take up professional roles.  And we just thought, wouldn’t it be great if this could be the year that project management finally came of age and started to accept its social responsibility? 

NIGEL WILLIAMS:  So we thought 2021 would be a great year for project management to accept and to also communicate to the rest of the world it’s willing to take on its societal responsibility. Rather than just being a get-it-done profession where we do whatever people tell us to do, that we are professionals in our own right. And we have a responsibility beyond simply shareholder responsibilities.

KAREN THOMPSON:  So we’re going to organize a series of themed events.  Since the pandemic started, we’ve been running a series of fortnightly Virtual Lunch and Learn, on Meetup. This was an initiative we set up. To support the project profession.  We wanted to create something that was much more discursive and conversational. But we thought we would use that similar vehicle to host a series of themed events that will be publicized on our website and on the Meetup group. https://www.meetup.com/Responsible-Project-Management/events/275119872/

NIGEL WILLIAMS:  In addition to the Meetup, we also try to collaborate with other people who are in this space because there’s a lot of people talking about sustainability in projects, much more now than before.  The challenge with that, of course, it can become quite confusing to try to make sense of all of these different initiatives and which one should I work with.  One of the things we’re trying to do in our PM is to invite some of these other people in.  We are all after the same goal.  Their mission might be slightly different.  Some people focus on infrastructure.  Some people focus on energy consumption, some on carbon emissions, circular economy, economics, doesn’t matter.  We’re all kind of on the same goal here.  We do better if we collaborate across these communities rather than compete with each other.

We’re also doing a survey on project sustainability/circular economy and stakeholders.  So if it’s possible to share the link with your listeners that would be quite useful for us, as well.  We plan to do like an annual survey that project managers can benchmark their activities regarding sustainability, so we want to launch that in 2021, as well.

Learn More about Responsible Project Management

BILL YATES:  That’s outstanding.  I think I may have mentioned the website before.  But can you guys share more about the best way to contact you both, and to learn more about responsible project management?

KAREN THOMPSON:  Well, the website is www.responsiblepm.com.  And I’m at Bournemouth University, and my email is kthompson@bournemouth.ac.ukhttps://www.linkedin.com/in/karen-thompson-619455a/

NIGEL WILLIAMS:  The easiest way to catch me is on LinkedIn.  I’m Dr. Nigel L. Williams on LinkedIn.  I work at University of Portsmouth in the U.K.  We also have a Facebook group, Responsible Project Management.  We’re fairly easy to find.

BILL YATES:  The project manager is always looking to grow.  That’s one of the things that I loved about the profession. There was always opportunity to grow.  You know, let’s take a fresh look at something and see how we can really have an impact on our community, on the sustainability of the products that we’re creating.

So I’m really excited about this.  Thanks so much.  And thanks for the work that you guys are doing.  This is a monumental task.  You’re trying to change the mindset of project managers all over the world.  So that’s going to take a lot of energy, and I can feel the passion from both of you.  So well done.


KAREN THOMPSON:  Thank you for inviting us.


WENDY GROUNDS:  Listeners, thanks for joining us.  The good news is that you just earned some Professional Development Units by listening to this podcast.  To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.


4 responses to “Episode 120 – Taking Responsibility in Project Management”

  1. Sorinel Ghita says:

    Thank you very much for the podcast! I am very pleased to see the focus on such valuable topics. Congratulations for your efforts to create, share and educate !

  2. Tosin Abiodun says:

    Hi Facilitators,

    I totally enjoyed this conversation with Nigel and Karen. What is missing from the conversation are the frontline communities who have historically been harmed because we don’t focus on sustainable goals. Do Project Managers talk about diversity, equity and inclusion?

  3. Hi Tosin, to answer your question directly, yes, Project Managers do talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. For example, the People SIG of the APM (https://www.apm.org.uk/community/people-sig/) is a great community to join in this area. In RPM, we seek to address these issues by encouraging Project Professionals to recognize and enact broader societal responsibilities including historically overlooked communities (within their scope of action) . Also, while I have you here, it would be great if you could fill out our Circular economy survey: https://portsmouth.fra1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_4HZoUdUCCiLRykd, feel free to share in your networks

  4. Gururaj Hebbar says:

    Good subject

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