A river runs through it

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As a ‘seasoned’ project manager, I often find that the tools we use in PM are useful elsewhere – and I’m always on the lookout for tools and philosophies from outside our discipline that can be adapted and brought into PM to help us manage – and contextualize – projects from a broader viewpoint.  In a way it's like having a river of sustainability thinking running through PM and a river of PM running through sustainability thinking.

Such was the case from a recent article in Nature, Prepare River Ecosystems for an Uncertain Future.  I mean, the title says it all, Project Managers: Preparing for an Uncertain Future – well, projects are unique, which means they are, by definition, working with an uncertain future.  We’re in unknown territory.  With climate change, it’s the same thing.  We’ve never seen some of the things we’re going to see over the next few decades.  How do we deal with that?

The article states:

Rivers around the world are struggling to cope with changing weather patterns. In Germany and Switzerland, a heatwave last year killed thousands of fish and blocked shipping on the River Rhine. California is emerging from a six-year drought1 that restricted water supplies and devastated trees, fish and other aquatic life. Across the US southwest, extended dry spells are destroying many more forests and wetlands.

The article says that “the tools of old” will not serve us in the same way.  We can no longer even hope to restore river systems to their original state as the climate warms.  We need to be less reactive, says the article, and more proactive.  We need to identify risk, it says in so many words, and come up with risk responses in advance, rather than reacting in real time to the massive changes expected.  Sound familiar?

In short, the article (and others like it) are promoting the use of tools we know and use in project management: data analytics and modeling (a la Monte Carlo simulation), trend analysis, and so on.  Note this extract:

Today, river managers track properties such as species diversity and population abundance, and compare them with historical averages. If they spot troubling declines, they might intervene by, for instance, altering the amount of water released from dams. But by the time trends are detected, they can be impossible to arrest.

Understanding how sensitive ecosystems might change is crucial to managing them in the future.

Again, this is about being proactive, about understanding systems on a system level as opposed to measuring specific reliable attributes we’ve always used in the past.  Those indicators simply may not be as trustworthy when the system itself is dynamic and being driven by sweeping changes – overarching changes – that we have never seen before.  And, armed with this information (and knowledge and wisdom) we can plan risk responses that are effective:

...in the US southwest, river flows could be increased strategically from reservoirs to protect important species, such as cottonwoods. And in Australia, letting more water pass through dams in spring could stop rivers drying up while the eggs of Murray cod mature.

The reason Murray cod are mentioned in particular, is the recent demise of thousands of these very valuable fish (Australia’s largest freshwater species) in a recent heat wave there.

Assuring that risk response is both efficient and effective is key here.  We’re all familiar with the use of Pareto analysis to choose the 20% of problem causes to get rid of 80% of the problem effects – and the same applies here.  So does the concept of secondary risk.  If actions are taken to intervene, what are the possible secondary risks?  This also comes up in the article:

Process-based models can look further ahead and save time, money and disruption by limiting the number of interventions as well as avoiding adverse impacts. They would help stakeholders and managers to choose which features of ecosystems to maintain, to justify costly interventions such as major engineering works and to weigh trade-offs to build resilience under increasing climatic uncertainty

An example of using system models to predict change decades or even centuries in advance is shown below.  We’re not used to this as PMs, are we?  Our projects last months, years, or in some rare ‘megaproject’ cases, last decades, but not centuries.  Yet our “planning horizon” can and should be broader, especially when climate change is in the picture.

In other words, we, as PMs, can learn a lot from what these researchers are doing – and I would assert that ‘vice-versa’ is true as well.  Since we, as PMs are masters (or should be) at managing in uncertainty, we can help with the application of our mindset and tools for dealing with uncertainty to the important work of identifying, analyzing, and responding to the coming threats (and perhaps even opportunities)

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 21, 2019 12:30 PM | Permalink

Comments (11)

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Few project managers understand the real sense of project sustainability and how to be proactive in this area.

@Mihiail, that is why I blog regularly here, to drive home this way of thinking... please help spread the word.


Adaptability is key. Great article. We focus a lot on the negatives of uncertainty and adaptability - and understandably so. We can also learn from the positives of uncertainty and adaptability. For example, who could have predicted that birds in the UK would - in the space of just 30 years - develop longer beaks. Why we ask? Because the British are almost obsessional about feeding the birds (maybe it is a Mary Poppins thing!) from bird feeders. The birds have adapted so they can insert their beaks further into the feeders.
What can project managers learn about adaptation? And how can we stimulate adaptation - as your article says, being proactive instead of reactive?
Fascinating stuff!

Sorry folks but I am unaware of any examples where the project manager has the formal or even informal authority to make strategic decisions about sustainability AFTER the project is completed. (And I spent many years working on the North Slope of Alaska, where the greenies outnumber construction people by at least 2:1)

MAYBE if we are really good we can INFLUENCE the decisions of others, specifically project sponsors and other key stakeholders, but I know of no project manager in my 50 years of hands-on experience who was able to ensure long term sustainability.

At the very best, we MAY be able to make TACTICAL decisions during the project execution phases, such as ensuring compliance with safety, health and environmental laws but even there as project managers, we have precious little in the way of discretionary decision making. We either comply with the laws or we don't.

Dr. PDG, Jakarta

Yes, sustainability really matters. Thank you for sharing this

Very interesting analogy, thanks for sharing.

Interesting analogy.

In construction project we use to think for events that are occurring once in ten years, we should think for those that are once in hundred years.

Reality is changing

Very interesting way to present this topic, thanks!

Great post

Amazing read, thanks for sharing

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