Respected leader in the project management profession, Ian Sharpe examines four key ways that astute program managers can work with stakeholders to add value for the future. How will your program consider the legacy?

The classic view of projects versus programs is that projects deliver outputs and programs deliver outcomes. The challenge is defining what a meaningful outcome is and the value or benefit derived from delivering it.

With an increasing focus on sustainability and climate change in the world, and most governments now mandating eco-friendly approaches, programs need to be constructed in a way that doesn’t just deliver outcomes, they leave a legacy for future generations.

Understanding the social value that programs can generate in communities and how the program connects to the United Nations Sustainable Development goals (UN SDGs) – during and afterwards – are now critical to get the best value from a program.

Here are four key ways astute program managers can work with stakeholders to add value for the future.

1. Starting with the future (and not just the end) in mind

Managing Successful Programmes® from the UK Cabinet Office defines outcomes and benefits as follows:

  • An outcome is ‘the result of change, normally affecting real world behaviour and/or circumstances’.
  • A benefit is ‘the measurable improvement resulting from an outcome…’.

Of course, you can achieve tangible improvements during project and program delivery which are beneficial to organisations, for example saving software costs. However, there is a class of benefits beyond the organisation that is often neglected – the legacy that the program leaves for the world. Considering what legacy your program may be able to achieve up front enables you to consider how you structure and deliver your program to deliver that legacy, be that a community or global impact.

Not all programs save the world, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t consider the ways in which they can have a lasting positive impact.

2. Understanding what difference the program can make for communities (during and afterwards)

Corporations and agencies have a social responsibility in what they do to contribute to the society and economy they are part of, yet how social value can be created and measured throughout the program is challenging.

Sir Michael Barber wrote in An Instruction To Deliver: Tony Blair, The Public Services And The Challenge Of Delivery about the power that transformation programs have with the public when program outcomes are tied to tangible metrics they care about (and vote on). For example, when people can see trains running on time and average hospital waiting times reduce, they see value. There is no doubt that this alignment was seen as instrumental in helping show the social difference being made by the Labour Government from 1997 to 2007. Social value can be factored into programs from the outset – noting that it’s not just about what the public cares about of course.

The second challenge is in what do you measure, with confidence that it will make a difference. For example, a new park facility in a local council area may have direct health benefits (physical and mental) from exercise, and community events enabled, but it can be challenging to quantify these.

Surprisingly, for a species that has had some 10,000 years of civilisation, actual government guidance on what to measure and effective frameworks are still emergent. The UK published a national handbook for Enhancing Social Value and Sweden drafted a national Social Impact Measurement standard in 2021. Standards Australia has undergone a public consultation for their handbook equivalent in the same year. There are other examples, but the point seems to have been glacial in coming.

3. Connecting to the UN SDGs to inform better equity and opportunity

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which are an urgent call for action by all countries. The UN SGDs recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-inhand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve the biosphere.

These are certainly outcomes you can care about, yet few programs proactively look at how what they are doing can contribute towards them. It’s often the case that the love for certainty blinds us to opportunity. For example, what if:

  • Your program could help align multiple agencies to support workforce development and help build transferrable capability for now and the future?
  • You could not only excavate a tunnel but use the earthworks to build a new park for a community and, in doing so, improve their access to recreation and exercise?
  • You budgeted exploring alternative processes and technologies to accelerate program delivery or improve the legacy you are leaving (for example, earlier decommissioning of a coal-fired station arising from battery storage improvement and pumped hydro)?

4. Unearthing unexpected benefits

Programs often encounter the fulcrum where the pressure to deliver far outweighs the capacity and funding to achieve the outcome needed. Private investment can help as part of funding.

At the World Investment Forum 2021, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) launched the Sustainable Fund Awards to recognise companies’ commitment to SDG funding and the achievement of high-quality, high-impact sustainable funds. UNCTAD estimated that the value of sustainability-themed investment products amounted to $3.2 trillion in 2020, a staggering 80% increase from 2019, showing that the capital market is increasingly aligning itself with sustainable development outcomes, including the SDGs.

Attracting this investment to your program is the challenge. Investors are a lot more astute now and want to see how things are governed and controlled, not just promised as a return in a business case. Strong program management helps win their confidence but showing how you are also making a sustainable difference is clearly an investor priority.

Another unexpected benefit is in talent retention and attraction.

Beyond the pay and feeling included, most people want to do meaningful work and make a difference. It’s worth showing how you can help succession planning in your program delivery, grow careers, and de-risk delivery, and show the connection to making a real difference for others and the world.

Additionally, by calibrating your program to ensure you’ve got a sustainable focus and realistic outcome, a range of national and global awards (including the United Nations and the AIPM’s Project Management Achievement Awards) for sustainability become accessible. If you’re doing to do the work anyway, why wouldn’t you want to be recognised for it?

How will your program consider the value and legacy?

In conclusion there’s not only compelling reasons to examine the social value and legacy of your program, but there are also clear advantages to doing so. The key challenge here is how your program will consider the value and legacy; after all, there’s too much to lose if you don’t. Remember, you won’t be the only ones impacted.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 edition of Paradigm Shift magazine. Find out more about the AIPM digital magazine and take a look at the full edition.