Project Management

The Three Levels of Success

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Categories: Project Failure

By  Rex M. Holmlin


As project managers, we would like our projects to be successful. Successful projects are more fun and, as a general proposition, our bosses like it better when our projects are successful. But how can we set our projects up for success?

A helpful first step is to define what success is. For many of us, that means meeting scope, cost and schedule targets. However, I will argue that there are three levels of project success we should think about:

1. Project-level success

2. User-level project success

3. Enterprise-level project success

For a project to be truly successful, we must be successful on each level. 

Project-level success is the area most of us are most familiar with. Success at this level means we meet our scope, cost and schedule objectives. When we meet these objectives, many of us are looking for a ticker tape parade down the hallway. However, we are only looking at part of the success equation.

User-level success means delivering the benefits that the users desire from the project. While our users, and other stakeholders, may be interested in scope, cost and schedule objectives, the truth is we can meet project-level objectives and still have a project that does not deliver the benefits the users and stakeholders were looking for.

At the enterprise level, senior leaders in our organization are interested in having the projects that we execute make a positive contribution to key metrics at the enterprise level (profit targets are one example). We can meet project-level objectives, but not make a contribution to key enterprise-level metrics.

In a recent webinar, I asked the participants whether their organizations defined success at each of these levels. Approximately two-thirds of attendees felt their organizations had well-defined project-level objectives, but less than half of those felt their organizations set clear and well-defined user/stakeholder- and enterprise-level objectives

It is often quite challenging to meet scope, cost and schedule objectives. However, our projects will still fail if we do not deliver the benefits users and other stakeholders desire and make a contribution to key enterprise-level metrics. As project managers, we need to ask questions about the benefits users desire, and understand the key enterprise-level metrics we can contribute to. The more specific we are, the greater the chance we will have a successful project. When it comes to project success, ignorance about the other levels of project success is not bliss.

Please drop me a note and let me know if your organization defines all three levels of project success.

Posted by Rex Holmlin on: July 22, 2015 03:39 PM | Permalink

Comments (32)

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From my viewpoint the most critical success measure is benefit realization. The first success measure is too narrow and it boils down to monitoring of project rather than defining it as a success measure.

Hi Suresh!

Thanks for your note and comment! As you observe, focusing on only the project level metrics is only part of the picture of project success. I agree strongly with you that benefit realization is central to having a successful project.

I totally agree with this article. In fact, this approach keeps a close link with the methodology proposed by Kaplan and Norton in their model of Balanced Scorecard, about measuring the success of a company by establishing cause-effect relationships among the objectives established in the 4 perspectives following: learning and growth; process, client (s) and partners and ultimately the financial perspective. In my opinion, if we attribute the success of a project only by the economic benefits that it can bring, it might erroneously conclude that the social projects that are initiated by local governments to meet the needs of citizens are not successful. So, to evaluate the success of a project, we must first analyze what is its context.

Hi Maria!

Thanks for your comment; your suggestion about a balanced scorecard perspective on project success is very interesting. Thank you for sharing that!! I think you are right on target regarding non-economic benefits. Many governmental or organizations in the not-for-profit arena are faced with defining success when there may not be economic benefits. One approach to identifying non-economic benefits is Value Measuring Methodology (VMM). (There is a great How-to manual for VMM at:

HI there sir.
I am still busy with my studies for project management (and loving it), but in my years as foreman with [email protected]**l R*@d i was working with this specific Project manager since i started there. By keeping in mind my studies (where well defined is mentioned allot) and my experience i have with this project manager, I can truly say that he respected all tree levels. As for the company, based on their values i also believe They did. As for me my good sir, I love the whole idea and promise i will define and respect it.

Hi Joseph!
Thanks for your comment. I think your focus on an appropriate level of definition is right on target. Too often success is not well defined and then the project team and project manager have difficulty focusing on the right targets. Thanks for sharing your thinking on this!

Hi Rex,
I like your article. I can relate to the different levels of success. I sort of think both Stakeholder and Enterprise Success are at par if I was to draw the graph. Stakeholder success makes it easier for the Enterprise to be successful in getting more projects! It creates a good name in the market.

Don't forget the 4th level beyond the enterprise is the environment surrounding the enterprise. Those may not be direct stakeholders. And it may present itself in all kinds of forms.

Hi Timothy!
Thanks for your comments; that is an interesting notion about stakeholder success making it easier for the enterprise to get more projects. There certainly should be a linkage of the type you describe. I have often thought there was potential for some tension between enterprise level success metrics and the benefits stakeholders desire. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!!

Hi Robert!
Thank you for offering this observation! The idea of a fourth level of a broader environment that a project should try to be successful in is very interesting. Could you please say more about how a project team might seek success in this 4th level?
Thanks again for offering this comment.

Good article and I fully agree with Robert on the fourth category. Environment and stakeholder concerns have huge impacts on the success of a project, both with respect to achieving project-level success (not introducing delays, re-work and cost increases to meet approval requirements not initially incorporated into scope), and to meeting enterprise-level objectives linked with social license to operate, and corporate environment performance or improvement targets. I argue that while they seem to be indirect objectives, they really need to be fully integrated into the whole.

One must not omit the the Project Manager level of success. I understand the PM work is to facilitate achieving the project goal(s), and all measurements are focussed on project results, stakeholders satisfaction, ROIs and so on, but we must include the PM level of success and satisfaction with the project in the mix.

This has nothing to do with having successfully lead the project to completion, because some projects never see a completion date due to external and non-controllable factors. What I'm referring is to the level of satisfaction, efficiency and completion the PM gained while handling the project. How his/her contribution is perceived by all stakeholders. How many of the project participants will love to work with him/her again.

Food for thought!

Rex on your question: "Could you please say more about how a project team might seek success in this 4th level?" the answer is Omgevings Management which is Dutch language for managing the complete surrounding environment. Books have been written about it. It really is about proactively seeking to connect and guide that environment in which the enterprise and thus the project relate to. Does this answer help. You might also call it stakeholder but then in the broad sense of the word.

Hi Karen!
Thanks for commenting! I have often thought the Enterprise Environmental Factors included some of the considerations you and Robert Bierwolf have commented on. However, I think you have focused on a broader array of linkages. Could you share a little more please about how you approach identifying these success linkages and incorporating them into your planning please? Thank you again for commenting!

Hi Migdalia!
Thanks for sharing!! We all have projects we look back on with both fondness and satisfaction. It is nice to feel successful about a project. Or be on a project where we increase our knowledge and proficiency. As you observe, this is an overlooked area, that deserves more attention. Thanks for spotlighting it!!

Hi Robert!
Thank you for responding to my inquiry. And for sharing the concept of "Omgevings Management"! This is an exciting idea and one that deserves more conversation in the wider project management community. I "googled" Omgevings Management and got almost 14,000 hits. The overwhelming number are in Dutch (as you noted in your post), but it is a concept I encourage everyone to read more about. Thanks for sharing this with all of us!!

Hi Professor Rex,
The article is interesting and thought provoking. And comments by readers on further levels on upstream and down stream side gives further dimensions. Breaking up of the success levels is influenced by project objectives and stake holders. I feel as PM professional one should be focusing on methods of clearly defining the success criteria at various levels.
Thank you very much for the article.

Hi Rex,

I also looked up the Omgevings Management suggested by Robert (thank you!) and see that it is exactly the same concepts that I was referring to - strategic environmental management, integrating both environmental risks and improvement opportunities, as well as external stakeholder concerns, ideas and knowledge into the life-cycle of any project or development. My key point when I refer to life-cycle, though, is to ensure that we have incorporated opportunities for improvements and optimizations for the exploration and investigation of sites, the design phases (including integration of regulatory approval requirements and process schedules), the site's development and construction, the resulting facilities' operation and the deconstruction and closure phases, including any post-closure monitoring and maintenance that may need to be done.

Risks of impacts that cause issues at any of these stages truly do need to be identified as early as the concept and planning stages of a project design to ensure that the least amount of work, the least amount of impacts and waste can be realized (i.e. applying those Lean principles through all phases of a project - concept of investigation and design through to post-closure!)

Achieving objectives set to target these areas do align with enterprise environmental factors indirectly, as how well you do against these can have a major impact on the reputation and support of an organization (social license to operate) - this is especially critical for natural resource & energy companies as well as municipal and government organizations that execute projects impacting multiple external stakeholders.

I will actually be presenting to our local PMI group in September on the basis of 'how-to' on these topic areas with intent to either publish a white paper and/or run a webinar afterwards. If anyone is interested, please connect with me and watch my website for an announcement later this fall...

Karen, great that you recognized it and gave it the English proper representation.
There is one major but to the story in my perspective. Every program and project manager may apply the techniques and tools to the best of his abilities, he may be IPMA A graded, there is one thing that really remains a true problem: politics and the truth, they just dont go together. Which really needs to be mapped onto "goed opdrachtgeverschap" in Dutch language. Something like good client or customer management. This is where I sense the root of the problem is with large infra projects, which then ultimately ten years down the road lead to national hearings trying to find the guilty party so to speak. And with the cycle time of politicians in mind, the chance of learning is nil, assuming there is a true will to learn.
Your views?

Hi Karen!
Thanks for expanding the discussion concerning a "4th Level" of project success. From a project management perspective, this may be an integration issue involving improved definition of a new class of project requirements as well as a better use of project risk management tools. Thanks again for sharing.
Good luck on your presentation! The September meeting of your PMI chapter is sure to be highly interesting and beneficial.

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