Killers of Project Sustainability

By Gratien Gasaba

Development projects are designed with the purpose to positively affect beneficiaries’ life for long time. It is startling to see to what extent sustainability aspects of projects evaporate during or before execution. The reasons why sustainability remains the paperwork in some development projects, have not been sufficiently discussed. Difficulties to keep the relevance of project achievements for the future may be noticed at its closure, but the factors that prevent this continuity can be traced back to any stages of project management. Without pretending exhaustiveness, below is a discussion of those anti-sustainability factors that I have called “killers of project sustainability”.

  • Very low level of project desirabilityNobody will be surprised if a project which is not sufficiently desirable for key stakeholders is designed around debatable objectives. In contrast to desirable projects that bring together sponsors and beneficiaries to consensually define ambitious and realistic objectives; projects with low desirability level are characterized by objectives that are regularly questioned by a big number of stakeholders. In reality, these stakeholders who regularly question the project purpose are not convinced of how the project is designed. Its relevance is at risk. In these circumstances it is almost impossible for deliverables to be sustained for future use. Dasgupta quoted in the United Nations’ report on “measuring sustainable development” (2008) pointed out that “simply being sustainable does not make a development path desirable. It also matters whether it is the sort of development path society wants to follow and this depends on what determines well-being for its members”. It is unreasonable to expect sustainability from an undesirable project.
  • Anti-sustainability organizational culture and practices

    The organizational culture and practices are critical determinants of projects sustainability. It is the organizational culture that dictates decision making at the unconscious level. If, to a certain extent, sustainability is not part of the organization culture, it will be difficult for its individual members to promote lasting solutions. It is frightening to see how some organizations may have formally endorsed sustainability, but at the same time keeping practices that erodes it.

  • Very low level of accountability and social responsibility

    Sustainable development is a long process that requires adhering to ultimate goals of the society’s well-being. Adhesion to ultimate goals requires a strong accountability system. Sustainability requires continuous improvement which in turn requires high level energy and commitment. The accountability and social responsibility requirements make people regularly check their acts and omissions to avoid punishment which may result from poor performances, or to exploit possibility of being rewarded after exceptional success. Without accountability, people will tend to do and report only what they are interested in. Needless to mention that most of sustainability aspects are efforts and time consuming while ordinary people prefer easier things that require much less effort.

  • Poor management of competition between dimensions of sustainability

    There are four dimensions of project sustainability which may compete for project resources. It is not unusual to witness stakeholders claiming that a project has neglected or underestimated one or another dimension. For instance in program on urban health and environment I had the opportunity to manage, some key stakeholders complained that there was imbalance in resource allocation between the social and environmental components of the program. It is interesting to see how people tried to do whatever they could to get new project financial resources for the environmental component. The project manager needs high negotiation, problem solving and conflict resolution skills in addition to good understanding of the business case. Poor management of competition between sustainability dimensions may lead to imbalance between these dimensions which in turn might negatively affect the system harmony. It is amazing to see how people trace this imbalance back to the initiation and planning stage and put everything on the project manager’s shoulders.

  • Uncontrolled competition between layers of sustainability

    Large complex projects that cover large territory are likely to be structured in several layers. Each territorial level may correspond to a sustainability layer. For example, a project on agriculture, say focusing on increasing quality seeds, may be viewed differently at national level and at local level. Local communities may wish to increase quality seed for food crops while the sector strategy promotes market oriented crops which they think to boost the national economy. In this situation, the difference between needs of local communities and national orientation may result in a competition between these levels. Sometime the competition is passive and local communities simply follow national strategies. It is also possible that local communities seriously challenge the national strategies by actively advocating for local needs. This competition between layers of sustainability is difficult to manage for, in most cases, they are out of the influence of the project management team. In this situation, sustainability management takes the form and uses tools and techniques of risk management. Persistence of active competition between layers of a given project might definitely kill its sustainability.

  • Project management plans that are inconsistent with sustainability aspects

    During the planning stage, the project management team produces various plans that will guide the project execution. Though planning is iterative the first plans have many chances to be implemented in the way they have been developed unless they are seriously challenged. Project management plans that are inconsistent with sustainability aspects cannot lead to lasting solutions.

  • Lack of user-friendly sustainability management tools

    Although sustainability is a determinant factor for development projects, it is frightening to learn the lack of user-friendly sustainability management tools. Complexity embedded in the sustainability concept does not allow development of clear tools to manage it. Project management practitioners that have sustainability in their responsibilities use the classic management tools to promote, design, monitor and assess sustainability. It is difficult to mainstream sustainability by using these tools that have been designed for other purposes. Some project managers may develop tailored checklists to monitor, control and assess sustainability. This is an excellent initiative, but efforts must be done to standardize some concept for the sake of comparability between project and organizations.

  • Poor stakeholder management

    Stakeholder management is critical to project sustainability. Full participation of key stakeholders in planning, execution and controlling of the project increases sustainability. Sustainability increases when stakeholders’ expectations are objectively dealt with and information well dispatched among stakeholders about the status of their respective expectations.

  • Nobody responsible for project sustainability

    To be achievable, sustainability must be linked to specific project activities which are defined in work plans. Activities will be realized if and only if required resources not only available but also allocated to it at the right time. One of the resources necessary for activity realization is qualified and committed people. This thumb rule for an activity to be done applies to sustainability. Good policies and strategies may be defined, but if there is nobody to implement them, it is absurd to expect significant effects from them. If nobody is assigned to reinforce sustainability and monitor the progress of related indicators, sustainability will remain the paperwork.

Gratien Gasaba is an experienced project manager with 9 years of experience in project and program management. He has also a consulting experience in business plan development and project evaluation. Mr Gratien Gasaba has a good working experience with both national and international experts in areas of organizational capacity development, governance, health and agriculture.

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