What is Project Success?

“As Project Manager, juggling all of the balls is important, but keeping your eye on the right ball is the key to delivering truly successful projects” – RG

While understanding the causes of project failure is important, without a common definition of “success”, there is no clear basis for differentiating a success from a failure. Clearly none of the projects in the Catalogue of Catastrophe can be regarded as great successes (some resulted in bankruptcies, many were cancelled before completion and some caused significant damage to public relations). However, those examples represent the extreme of project failure and in practice, there is a sliding scale between total failure and absolute success. Given that our definition of success should be the guiding light towards which projects are focused, I think it important that we have a clear definition of what constitutes “success” .

On the surface you might think that defining success would be relatively simply, but in practice different people define success in different ways. Based on discussions with a wide variety of project participants and observation of people’s actual behaviours in real-life projects, I’ve classified the different definitions into five tiers:

  • Tier 1 – The project was a success if it delivers all or most of what it said it would (the scope), regardless of schedule or budget performance
  • Tier 2 – The project was a success if it delivers what it said it would, on schedule and/or within the agreed budget
  • Tier 3 – The project was a success if it delivers what it said it would, on schedule, within the agreed budget and to the expected quality standards
  • Tier 4 – The project was a success it delivers on all agreed project objectives, be they scope, schedule, budget, quality or outcomes based (i.e. goals to be achieved or strategic positions to be attained)
  • Tier 5 – The project was a success if the product produced by the project creates significant net value for the organization after the project is completed.

The classic textbook definition says that a project is a success if it achieves all of the agreed “project objectives” (i.e. the tier 4 definition). However, perhaps because schedule and budget are the most visible dimension, in the midst of a project many people behave as if either tier 2 or 3 where the definitive answer. Once a project is over and once the product produced by the project has time to be used, the perspective sometimes changes and people (especially the Sponsor, members of the public and the media) often look to the tier 5 definition when making their final retrospective judgment.

These differing perspectives mean that a project’s relative degree of success or failure may change over time. The Sydney Opera house is a good example. The original 1957 project plan called for the project to be finished in 5 years at a cost of $7M. In the end, the project cost $110M and took 13 years. By any measure that was a severely troubled project and at the time, the press savaged the project for its many missed deadlines and projections. In retrospect, now that we can look back many years later, it is clear that the project created something of enormous value. Today the Opera house is an icon of Australia and a magnet that draws tourists to Australia. It seems reasonable that those tourist dollars will have paid back the development costs many times over and I doubt there are many people who would now say the project should never have been done.

Layers in project success

Figure 1 – Layers in project success
click for larger image

One reason people have difficulty agreeing on a definition is because there are two interconnected dimensions in which project success or failure is judged (Figure 1). There is “project management success” (i.e. delivering in accordance with the agreed project objectives) and there is “product success” (i.e. the amount of value the project’s deliverables bring once the project is over). Those two would equate to the tier 4 and 5 definitions respectively. With that separation in place, it is fair to say that the Sydney Opera house was a successful product born from a deeply troubled project.

When you ask Project Sponsors which definition of success is most important to them, they usually pick the tier 5 definition (creating real value). Given that the Sponsors are usually the ones paying for the project (i.e. the customer) it then makes sense to me that the tier 5 definition should be the starting point when planning a project. That doesn’t mean that schedule and budget aren’t important, they are! But the creation of value should be the context within which decisions are made, within which plans are set and against which progress is judged. That approach takes quite a mature environment and many organizations would need to look long and hard at their corporate culture if they were to try and adopt it in any meaningful way. It requires us to make value based decisions when facing trade-offs and at times it may mean prioritizing value over schedule and budget.

Of course getting agreement about how to define success is not easy. While Project Sponsors do usually think about projects in terms of value created, some Project Managers dislike any definition of success that encompasses value created. Perhaps fearing that they will be held accountability for things over which they have no direct control, some in the Project Management community prefer the tier 3 or 4 definitions. These fears are certainly understandable. Many of the key decisions that influence the value created are out of the Project Manager’s direct control. If you are hired to build condos and you deliver on schedule and on budget, but the architect designed units that are not appealing in the market or the developer over prices the units, it’s hard to swallow the bitter pill and call the project a failure. While that is an understandable perspective, my thinking is that the definition of success or failure should be from the customer’s perspective rather than from that of the person hired to manage the delivery of the project. To me, doing it the other way round is a little like saying that the sun revolves around the earth (i.e. that “Project Management” success is more important than “product” success).

As a professional Project Manager I think it is important to have a clear picture of what success means and I personally choose to use the tier 5 definition as my guide. That definition frames the context within which I make decisions and how I guide my clients. Given the importance of the issue it is a subject I encourage all organizations to think about. If the organization’s definition of success is wrong then the context within which decisions are made will be wrong and that can easily become the trigger that leads to a failure. Similarly if stakeholders have different definitions of success we can end up with different people pulling the project in different directions.

Now I’m fully aware that some in the Project Management community will disagree with the use of the tier 5 definition. Some will say that the project ends when the project closes and that moment in time is the point at which success should be judged. While I respect their perspective, it is not me that they will have to convince. The perception of the public, the Sponsors and the media are the forum in which success or failure is judged. While we may like to impose a very specific point in time when success should be judged, it is doubtful anyone would be able to influence how people outside of the Project Management community make their judgment. Trying to change public perception would be an impossible battle and it is not one I would choose to fight.

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Editor: Robert Goatham