2. Selecting the Best Projects

2.4 Harbourfront Centre Case Study

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The following case study profiles Harbourfront Centre’s effort to select the best projects as part of its sustainability program.  The document provides an honest and detailed account of all aspects of the organization’s experience.

A. The Challenge

With a solid understanding of the organization’s impact, Harbourfront Centre’s sustainability program efforts shifted toward taking action.  Several project opportunities had already been identified although it wasn’t clear what others may exist or be worth looking for.   A major economic downturn meant that a significant level of government funding and sponsorship revenue was lost leaving the organization in a challenging financial state and preventing a budget from being allocated towards the program.  Even if the potential projects identified were rigorously evaluated, it wasn’t clear if it would be feasible to adopt any, regardless of their value. 

B. Taking Action

The major steps outlined in the Selecting the Best Projects section of the Refocus Guidebook include:  Identifying Potential Projects, Assessing Project Options and Adopting & Implementing Projects.  Let’s review Harbourfront Centre’s experience in attempting to fulfill these steps.

1. Identifying Potential Projects

With Harbourfront Centre’s program and effort to understand its impact being initially focused on addressing environmental impact, the projects identified were mainly based on opportunities to reduce the organization’s environmental impact.  A long and thorough list of potential projects was developed by exploring internal sources such as the data collected, construction plans and staff feedback, as well as external sources like new technologies and funding incentives.  In the end, we had compiled a list of almost 100 projects ranging from the most basic to quite extraordinary. 



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Identifying Potential Projects

An expansive list of economically-, socially- and environmentally -oriented potential projects is developed based on a range of inputs and without constraint. 

A healthy range of potential projects are highlighted but a bias toward specific areas of opportunity and projects that are likely feasible, results in some less obvious opportunities being ignored.

A limited group of projects is identified that stem from a few internal sources.  Many areas of opportunity and projects are simply not on the radar.

Review of Harbourfront Centre Effort:  Harbourfront Centre’s slant toward addressing environmental impact certainly limited the field of potential projects considered.   It was clearly the greatest area of opportunity and was very extensively explored; however, the exclusion of social or economic projects likely meant some of the best projects were missed, eventually diminishing the program’s potential impact.

2. Assessing Project Options

Qualifying Potential Projects

The Leadership Team assembled to perform a basic review of the long list of nearly 100 potential projects developed.  The discussion presented opportunities for adjusting individual projects, in some cases altering their scope or focus.  By applying some simple logic and discussing each option, the Leadership Team was able to efficiently eliminate about half the projects thought to be a poor fit for the year ahead. 

Using an Assessment Framework

The remaining projects were carefully evaluated using the assessment framework developed.  With literally no budget available, opportunities for creating shared value and generating as much external support as possible were extensively explored. We looked for grants, loans, donations or in-kind contributions.

Prioritizing Projects

The Leadership Team reconvened to review the results of the assessments performed.  A fluid discussion of relevant, deeper level considerations took place as part of prioritizing each project relative to the smaller group of projects remaining.  Projects that would no longer be opportunities if not adopted during the upcoming year were highlighted.

Attention was given to the young and vulnerable state of the program.  Those involved had a great deal to prove. we had to show that efforts to function more sustainably could strengthen the organization, rather than imposing a burden or creating a risk.  As such, we promoted projects that presented opportunities to get key individuals on board and be excited.

Early on, we had set clear objectives to ensure the program was sincere and valuable. Projects were categorized based on the key objectives they supported.  The following table describes how the projects adopted in the first year were mapped across objectives.

Selecting the best project case study image

Projects that met multiple objectives or were highest rated within an individual category were prioritized so that each objective was met by at least one project.



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Assessing Project Options

Extensive data is inputted into a detailed assessment framework to rate prospective projects.  A broader range of additional circumstances and factors beyond the individual project are thoughtfully considered as part of soundly prioritizing projects.

Projects are assessed using simple assessment framework with less than complete data.  The prioritization process lacks the depth and sophistication needed to effectively weigh various program and organizational considerations.

Projects are evaluated in an unstructured and inconsistent manner.  A combination of limited data and opinions determine priority.

Review of Harbourfront Centre Effort:  Harbourfront Centre established a process that allowed for a rigorous assessment of potential projects.  The experience and expertise needed was available every step of the way.  A very practical and realistic perspective was applied to evaluating projects ensuring the outcomes were meaningful and considerate of the reality of the situation organizationally.  For this reason, the assessments performed positively contributed to the effectiveness of the decision making process.

3. Adopting & Implementing Projects     

Starting with a lack of any budget made the situation difficult but it did not stop us from moving forward.  By leveraging funding opportunities and partnerships, we were able to adopt a range of projects (profiled above).  In some cases several supporters found so much shared value in a project, that it was actually over-financed.  The extra financial aid was reallocated, allowing us adopt the highest ranking projects that demanded some capital upfront.  In adopting the group of projects listed, Harbourfront Centre was able to reduce its environmental impact, attract publicity, engage a new audience of environmental advocates and reduce operating costs in perpetuity, among a host of other benefits.  This method has since been applied several times and has similarly enabled a variety of simple and exceptional projects alike to be undertaken through each annual round of prioritization and planning.

Best practices in project management were applied to plan and implement the projects adopted.  Operating a 10-acre site and multiple buildings that are often renovated meant that Harbourfront Centre had lots of relevant expertise.  It was also important that the team remained responsive and flexible so that if and when new opportunities or support became available, the plan could be modified where it made sense. 



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Adopting & Implementing Projects

The limited resources available are allocated to adopt the group of projects that creates the overall greatest benefit.  A formal plan is developed and methodically followed to implement each project.

Projects are adopted based on a less than complete view of the benefits they offer individually.  The discipline typically applied to manage projects internally is inconsistently applied to the projects adopted resulting in implementation challenges.

Projects are adopted with limited information and rigour and as such higher value projects are passed over unknowingly.  With a lack of planning and structure involved issues arise during implementation.

Review of Harbourfront Centre Effort:  Harbourfront Centre’s methodical approach allowed for the best of the remaining projects under consideration, to be distinguished and adopted.  Applying proper project management discipline ensured effective implementation as well as effective handling of unforseen issues. 

4. Overall Results



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Overall Results

Leadership is confident the limited resources available have generated the greatest possible benefit.  This helps to ensure the value generated by allocating resources toward sustainability projects is as high as possible and improves the organization’s performance.

There is a lack of certainty as to whether or not the projects adopted made the best use of resources available.  Lots of benefits are realized but it’s much less likely the return on investment generated was positive.

Resources have been ineffectively allocated to projects producing limited benefits.  The program delivers only a fraction of its potential value and is seen as a relatively weak area of investment. 

Review of Harbourfront Centre Effort:  Starting with a less than complete scope of data reduced the field of potential projects identified and as such, Harbourfront Centre’s ability to select the very best projects.  In spite of this, by using an effective selection process, the projects that were adopted markedly improved Harbourfront Centre’s performance.  New revenues were secured, operating costs reduced, employees and several other stakeholder groups engaged and rewarded, in addition to many other benefits.  Leadership accepted that the organization’s sustainability program had demonstrably contributed much more than it had taken away, all while ‘doing good’.  The results achieved helped to shift perception from sustainability being a burden towards it being a growing area of opportunity.  This new context increased leadership’s interest in and willingness to enable the program to progress which clearly would not have happened at the outset.

C. Case in Point:  Development of a Dedicated Budget

The following story illuminates a real, exceptional and unexpected outcome that would not have been possible had we not focused on effectively selecting the best projects.  Although the effort invested was imperfect, the benefit of working toward the standards of Refocus Sustainability Program Model, made many outcomes possible that would not have been as successful through conventional approaches.

1. Background

One source of impact Harbourfront Centre was committed to addressing was its use of office paper.  The data collection process illuminated several issues that were leading to waste: 

  • Staff were commonly printing jobs and forgetting to pick them up.
  • Sometimes staff replenished a printer tray with the wrong sized paper.
  • Staff would attempt to print a job multiple times when a jam or malfunction was causing delays.
  • Only one machine within the office was capable of producing colour prints.

These issues would consistently result in large stacks of unclaimed print jobs piling up each day.  While there was clearly an opportunity to improve printing practices, the lack of any budget to devote to undertaking projects imposed a very real and limiting constraint.

2. The Relevance of Selecting the Best Projects

The effort invested into methodically selecting projects had an incredible impact on Harbourfront Centre’s program.  It seemed unlikely undertaking any significant projects would be possible without a budget but this barrier was surprisingly overcome because each project was so carefully assessed and understood.

Identifying Potential Projects:  Exploring different sources of potential projects helped us identify solutions to our paper challenge.  We identified several opportunities: 

  • Xerox launched a new line of ‘ColorQube’ multi-function devices that use a more environmentally friendly, wax-based alternative to traditional toner. 
  • A metering solution called SafeQ, made by Ysoft, was identified that would require staff to release print jobs by swiping their ID badge or entering their internal login and password.
  • 100% recycled paper was available for purchase which generates significantly less carbon equivalent emissions in comparison to other types of printer paper.

Assessing Project Options:  The opportunity to combine hardware and software printing solutions with 100% recycled paper was explored.  Using the ColorQube devices in tandem with SafeQ technology would allow standardized print settings to be defined; double-sided printing could be set as the default to reduce pages used.  Further staff would not be able to release print jobs without physically visiting the printer.  Using ColorQubes would also make colour printing available at more locations across the office, which would be more convenient for staff. 

It was estimated these two solutions together could reduce the number of pages printed by ~25%.  The savings reaped by using fewer pages of paper could offset the incremental cost of more expensive, 100% recycled paper.  The impact of using less and switching to more environmentally friendly paper would reduce carbon equivalent emissions associated with printing by over 60%. 

Xerox approached Harbourfront Centre, keen to renew the organization’s printer lease and particularly motivated by their effort to reach year-end sales targets. The Program Champion negotiated with the Xerox sales representative suggesting this potential project could serve a compelling case study to help position Xerox as a leader in environmentally sound solutions, but  at no extra cost.  The demonstration project concept was valued and the cost of the lease was actually slightly reduced.  Xerox offered only a week to finalize a decision on a proposed new 5-year lease, as the units had to be quickly installed to count toward Xerox’s year-end targets.  This required HFC leadership to act fast or miss the opportunity to capitalize on the offer put forth.

Adopting & Implementing Projects:  This project required a net-negative investment from Harbourfront Centre although it did require the IT department to take on responsibility for getting the new system up and running during the holiday season.  This would create time stress and also impose significant change on employees more generally.  A thoughtful change management effort that included communications and training would also need to be prepared to support employees through the change which would impact them immediately after returning from holidays. 

With the IT Department and Leadership Team willing to put in the effort, the project was a no-brainer as it was feasible with no investment and was projected to return a wide spectrum of significant benefits.  The new lease with Xerox was signed and ColorQube multi-function devices combined with SafeQ technology was implemented.  Double-sided printing became a default print setting across the organization and employees had to use their ID badge to release their print jobs.

3. Outcomes

Initial Results and Response:  Only months after implementing the project, paper use had decreased by over 20%.  It was enough to justify exploring the procurement of more expensive, 100% recycled paper.   By investigating where paper was already being purchased, it became evident Harbourfront Centre was using three different suppliers.  It was also apparent these suppliers were delivering other office supplies, washroom paper products and cleaning supplies.  An opportunity was identified to offer the total bundle of office and cleaning products being purchased to a single supplier in exchange for a significant discount.  The staff members responsible for purchasing across departments were brought together and a complete business case was presented to them.  Although they each had personal loyalties and departmental interests to manage, they all agreed on selecting one office and cleaning product supplier if it saved the whole organization money and allowed us to reduce environmental impact. 

Expanded Opportunity:  Harbourfront Centre’s total spend enticed Staples to become a strategic partner.  Staples was able to reduce pricing by 12% across the board, even after the incremental cost of 100% recycled printer and washroom paper was factored in.  Further, they contributed a modest one-time a sponsorship and took an interest in promoting REFOCUS to their customers.  Not only was switching to 100% recycled paper justified, the process of investigating the opportunity actually resulted in Harbourfront Centre saving thousands of dollars each year. 

4. Conclusion

The project was initially seen as an opportunity to reduce the impact of paper use with a costly combination of technological solutions that required a significant investment.  By going through a rigorous process designed to ensure the best projects were adopted, the opportunity was identified to combine several projects and leverage shared value in several ways.   As a result, incredible triple-bottom-line benefits were realized without requiring a capital investment.  The savings realized helped to adopt additional projects, and leadership again saw the positive effects of the sustainability program on performance. It built leadership’s confidence in the value of employing such a thorough approach to selecting projects. 

5. Discussion Questions

  • Why is it important that adequate energy is put toward identifying and qualifying projects before they are assessed?
  • When adopting a group of projects, what could happen if projects are assessed and adopted individually without consideration to the rest?
  • Explain how this story demonstrates how a methodological selection process contributed to the results Harbourfront Centre generated?
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