Pssst! Sustainability is hiding in the Sixth Edition! (Part 2 of 2)

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Richard Maltzman
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In Part 1, I discussed some of the aspects of the intersection of sustainability and PM with the new concept of “Overall Risk” introduced in the 6th Edition of the PMBOK® Guide.  I promised that there were other hiding places that I’d uncover, and in this Part 2, I’ll continue with a new risk response.  That’s right, PMI has introduced a new response (that is listed for both Threats and Opportunities) called Escalate.

Let me summarize “Escalate” (I’ll focus on the Threat response) and then connect the dots with respect to sustainability.

First of all, a brief refresher on the other risk responses.  You should recall that the responses to threats in the 5th Edition were Avoid, Transfer, Mitigate, and Accept.  I put together this handy table to help you relate this to reality.  I use the scenario of a telecom team installing equipment on a rocky, steep cliff.

Threat Response

Brief Description

Project Example


Eliminate the threat by changing the project plan

Change the route to avoid the cliff


Shift the threat ownership to an entity outside the project team

Buy insurance and/or hire a specialist


Lower the probability and/or impact of the threat (remember to work on both)

Use safety gear, netting, and training in working in this type of terrain.


Acknowledge that this exists but take no specific project action

You know, Charlie was assigned to work on this installation and we never really liked Charlie…


This is how we responded to threat up until the 6th Edition.  Now, however, we’re much more modern. We have added Escalate.  Escalate allows the project manager to acknowledge that threats that may be visible to the PM exist outside his or her realm.  The description in the Guide also includes cases in which – even if the threat is in the project area – the response would exceed the project manager’s authority.  This is key, as you’ll see later.  In writing about sustainability and project management, and in commiserating with others who do so, we often get a sort of whiny feedback that goes something like, “we manage a project and not the company, so when you tell me about these large risks like ‘what this means to the environment’, it’s beyond my control or area of concern, so I have to let these go, and worry about my project’.

PMI just took that excuse away.

You should be looking for these sorts of threats, and if you find one where either the threat itself is ‘beyond your vision’ or the response would require ‘bigger things to happen than you can control’, PMI is saying that you should speak truth to power, and not just squelch the threat, but give it to the people who can care for it. 

And, even if you are not looking for these sort of threats, they may still reveal themselves to you.  The same logic applies.  If you realize that the threat is ‘bigger than your project’, that doesn’t mean to silence it!  It means you may have to escalate.

This speaks more to the more mature view of project management as the connection between vision/mission/strategy to day-to-day operations, and it seems (at least to me) that it encourages a more vocal PM who should raise these threats, rather than burying them, either literally, or by virtue of saying “not in my job description”.

The Escalate risk response also says this: “Escalated risks are managed at the program level, portfolio level, or other relevant part of the organization.”

My co-author Dave Shirley, PMP and I wrote Green Project Management back in 2010.  Although it won PMI’s Cleland Award for literature in the following year, the response from project managers was, well, let’s just say it was good but uninspiring.  That’s why we followed it up with a book called, Driving Project, Program, and Portfolio Success.  Just as in the 6th Edition, we realized, in writing this second book, that sometimes sustainability issues are at those levels (program and portfolio) and the project management population sees these issues as being part of a ‘great beyond’.  What I like about this “Escalation” risk response is that it defines ‘the great beyond’ – makes it approachable and familiar.

For completeness, I do want to reiterate that Escalate shows up on both the Threat and Opportunity sides of the risk equation.  It’s pretty much the equal and opposite of Escalate for threats.

One last point: in both cases (Threat and Opportunity) the PMBOK® Guide advises us that “escalated (opportunities or threats) are not monitored further by the project team after escalation, although they may be recorded in the risk register for information.  I applaud this notion of transferring this knowledge to future project managers for their consideration.

So with all this wisdom in hand, let’s finish that table above and make it 6th Edition compliant.  For this, let’s change the scenario to my example of the paving material choice in my post “Paved With Good Intentions”.  It's a more appropriate example for this response.


Threat Response

Brief Description

Project Example


Done when a threat is outside the scope of the project.

Bring the threats and opportunities associated with the choice of paving material to the project sponsors for consideration.


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: January 20, 2018 08:20 PM | Permalink

Comments (7)

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Escalation should have been a threat/opportunity response a long time ago. A welcome change in the 6th Edition.

Good article and thanks for pointing out this change in the 6th edition.

Great article!

Thanks Rich and Dave. I am watching for the interesting scenarios on mock questions to surface. The questions and answers will be creative for sure.
Wondering how many years before PMI promotes a sustainability certification.

Thansk for the update!

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