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Five Key Steps for Prioritizing Sustainability Projects (and great tips, too!)

With only a little online research, businesses can come up with long lists of ways to improve their sustainability. This is especially the case in the early years of strategy development. There are many things that have positive environmental and social benefits that quite frankly, should have been done anyway to gain operational efficiencies. These operational best practices, such as installing programmable thermostats or duplex printing, are the “low hanging fruit” of sustainability. And, there are quite a few of them.

If one of the goals of your sustainability program is to reduce the amount of energy you use, for example, you likely are faced with a laundry list of ways you can do this. How do you weigh the costs and benefits? How do you prioritize them? Even if there are only ten potential projects on your list, getting more than three to five done in a year is tough. Quick tip: Pick fewer projects than you think you can get done in year one. They will inevitably take longer than you think and this way you will meet your goal. This is especially important early on when you are trying to gain credibility.

So where do you begin? Here are five easy steps to finding the projects that make the most sense for you organization:

  1. Establish Criteria. The first step to project prioritization is to develop a set of criteria that will help you evaluate each project. The following is a list of criteria you may wish to consider. There are likely others that are specific to your organization, but this will be a good starting point. Quick tip: Pay special attention to the first two criteria if you want to make your sustainability program more strategic.Alignment with Business Strategy – This relates to how well the project aligns with your organization’s strategic plan. Can you make the case that the project supports long term organizational goals and/or the business vision?

    Alignment with Sustainability Goals – Similar to the alignment with overall business strategy, this will help you evaluate if a project is supportive of your sustainability goals. Quick tip: If you don’t have goals yet, it is helpful to identify 2-3 areas of focus or issue areas for your sustainability program. If you don’t know what those are yet, consider conducting a high level assessment of the most important sustainability-related risks and opportunities you face, and set some goals based on what your assessment reveals.

    Beyond these strategic criteria, more tactical criteria can be applied. The financial criteria are universally important. Financial criteria typically include things such as:

    • Initial investment required
    • Anticipated return on investment
    • Payback period
    • Potential to increase revenue

    If you don’t have all of this information at your fingertips, do some high level research and make an educated guess. Often vendors will give you case studies or ballpark figures for projects without charge if you ask for an estimated cost.

    Beyond the financial aspects, here are some other areas that you can factor in.  Most of these are less tangible than the financial, but again, an educated guess can be applied.  These include areas such as:

    • Employee resources requirement
    • Knowledge/expertise requirement
    • Degree of control over the area/barriers to success
    • Degree of risk exposure (if not done)
    • Potential to enhance reputation
    • Potential to enhance employee engagement
  2. Rank the criteria. Once you have a comprehensive list of criteria you would like to apply to the projects, the next step is to rank the criteria.  Which criteria are the most important to you?  Which are less so?  This is a perfect time and opportunity to get your management team involved.  Bring them into a meeting (with food) and ask them to rank the criteria for picking sustainability projects.  Once the team has voted, you will find yourself with all the information you need for a weighted list of criteria. For the next step, assign each one scoring weight based on its level of importance to your management team.
  3. Rate each project.  Next you need to give a numerical rating to each project based on each of the criteria. Let’s assume you are using a rating scale of 1-4 for each of the criteria, with the higher number being the most positive. For example, let’s say your project is to switch to duplex printing and you need to rate the initial financial investment required. It would likely score a 4 if you only have to change printer settings and/or doing some education. If you have to buy new printers because your current printers don’t have a duplex option, the rating would be closer to a 2 or 3. You can even define a range of investment (0 – $1,000 = 4, for example) that corresponds with a particular rating. It is best if your sustainability committee as a whole goes through the process of rating each project against your criteria. Once you assign a rating to each project and multiply it by the weighting of the criteria, you will have a composite weighted score for each project. Put the final weighted scores in order and you have a prioritized list of projects.
  4. Do a “gut check” on the results.   Take a step back and look at the list. Are there projects that are considered “essential” or extremely important by the team, but they are below the top five on the list?  Why did that happen?  Those projects should be discussed, and there should be team consensus about what to do.  The order can be shifted at this point, but it should be done on the basis of an earnest and unbiased discussion.
  5. Pick your projects and get approval.  From your prioritized list, you will need to decide how many projects you will try to accomplish in the timeframe you have.  You will need to factor in the amount of employee time required for each and any time for approvals, vendor vetting, etc. As with many things in life, it often takes longer than you think, so build in some cushion.  At this point, you are ready to go for whatever approvals you need. Getting approvals should be easier because you have a solid rationale and a defined process for how each project was prioritized and selected based on the weighted criteria.

One last Quick tip! It is a good idea to get budget approval at the same time as you get project approval. Go in prepared with some well thought through cost estimates for your plan, and requests for employee support. Check out this blog post for tips on how to budget for sustainability programs.

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