Why Some Projects Succeed and Others Fail

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Why Some Projects Succeed and Others Fail

By Marian Haus, PMP

There is obviously a high interest in the project management community and literature about what drives project success. For example, searching online for “why projects succeed” will return you five times more web pages than “why projects fail.” Similarly, there are four times more pages about “project success factors” than “project failure factors.”

This is no coincidence! The overwhelming interest in project success insights is driven by the struggle of many organizations and project managers to understand what drives success.

But before answering the question of why projects succeed, let’s first try to define project success.

The most common definition of success is delivering the project on time, on budget and in scope. PMI’s PMBOK Guide® says a project is successful if the following parameters are met: product and project quality, timeliness, budget compliance and customer satisfaction.

Others define project success by measuring the project ROI (or business case) over a certain period of time. If the ROI is positive, the project is declared successful, regardless of its deviations along the way.

I have my own definition: A project is successful if it meets its given goals, within acceptable variance boundaries (e.g., in terms of scope, time or budget). This is a relative definition and relies on the fact that the world is not perfect. Hence even a successful project will rarely be a 100 percent success.

A civil construction project might be declared successful if it meets its scope and quality. Acceptable time or budget deviations might not be seen as failure. Similarly, an IT project might be declared successful if it meets its scope on time, with acceptable deviations from quality or budget.

A project’s success is relative: it depends on how the success criteria and metrics are defined from the very beginnings of the project, along with who will measure them.

OK, there are clearly many definitions of project success. Similarly, there are also many views and studies on why projects succeed.

Let’s take a look at a few studies and try to find a common denominator.

According to PMI’s 2015 Pulse of the Profession®: Capturing the Value of Project Management, over the last three years the number of projects meeting their goals—hence being successful—has remained steady at about two-thirds of projects. This success is the result of organizations supporting project excellence by focusing on fundamental aspects of culture, talent and process.

But size matters, too. A Gartner study from 2012 shows that small IT projects (below US$350,000) are more likely to succeed than big projects (budgets over US$1 million).

Other studies reveal that project success is tightly linked to clear project objectives and requirements that are fully understood and supported by actively engaged stakeholders.

My view on the common denominator that leads to project success is simple: the main drivers of project success are rarely of a technical nature. Instead, the drivers are the basics of the project management culture and discipline within the project organization.

In other words, fix the project management basics, and your chances of reaching project success will increase.

Posted by Marian Haus on: December 06, 2015 08:50 AM | Permalink

Comments (25)

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Interesting thoughts about project success and how to define it! Interesting that small projects are successful more often. It would be very interesting to further large/small projects by methodology--Agile vs. traditional. I would hypothesize that more small Agile projects are seen as successful and traditional methods have a higher success rate amount larger projects--okay, I know others will disagree, and there are ways to scale Agile. Would be interested in any research out there.

Thanks for the post--makes one think!

I endorse and concur with the conclusion in that the drivers of project success are the basics of the project management culture and discipline within the project organization. Doesn't matter the size of the project or its well define goals, if the organization does not recognized project management first as a discipline and further as a way of business life (culture) the well defined goals will not be achieved.

Great stuff!!!!

Excellent article!

One of the biggest challenges to develop projects in Latin America are sociopolitical conditions and bureaucracy, things can change from night to morning. So What type of criteria you need to have in this conditions!

Thank you! I liked the way you presented that there are many different ways to define project success. This inherently suggests that a key metric that a PM should define early in their project, is how the success of the project will be measured by the stakeholders. Reporting on that as a Key Metric during the project may save a great deal of effort towards ''''spinning'''' the post mortem ... as well as gathering much input towards your stakeholder priorities!

How do you measure project success—is it really by means of the triple constraints criteria?

Reference to the project management triangle (called also Triple Constraint or the Iron Triangle) is no longer used in the newest version of the Project Management Institute's PMBOK® Guide.

Instead, project success has been described in the newest (5th Edition) as follows:

“Since projects are temporary in nature, the success of the project should be measured in terms of completing the project within the constraints of scope, time, cost, quality, resources, and risk as approved between the project managers and senior management. To ensure realization of benefits for the undertaken project, a test period (such as soft launch in services) can be part of the total project time before handing it over to the permanent operations. Project success should be referred to the last baselines approved by the authorized stakeholders.  The project manager is responsible and accountable for setting realistic and achievable boundaries for the project and to accomplish the project within the approved baselines.”

Source: A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fifth Edition, Section 2.2.3 Project Success, Pg. 35

The following, IMHO, are noteworthy too.

"The ultimate purpose of project management is to create a continuous stream of project successes. This can happen provided that you have a good definition of "success" on each project."

– Harold Kerzner, Ph.D.

Another similar perspective.

W. Edwards Deming, the father of quality assurance, suggested that quality was "meeting or exceeding customer expectations." Deming states that the customer's definition of quality is the only one that matters.

I am sure that there were characteristics other than size which contributed to Gartner mentioning that small size projects are more likely to succeed. Elemental factors as you mention such as time, scope and budget impact the success, but you do not mention project or program leadership, organizational culture, team work and the degree of collaboration on the project as well as customer expectations and involvement. Another words, it is the soft skills that will drive success or be the deciding factor.

Key stakeholders have the ultimate word about project success, specially the client or the top management; but maybe a good definition of a successful project is the one that actually deliver its planned benefits. Working around the typical constraints found in the PMBoK is not always the best or the only way, because sometimes the time, for instance, is not as important as the cashflow.

good discussion!...you are welcome to view my research on this topic which is published at the PMI research portal:


if you would like to contribute data to the research see www.itprojectstats.com I could use some fresh data !

Thanks for this simplified easy to follow write up. There are various ways of describing project success.There has also been many research suggesting that the use of project methodologies enhances project success rates. Are there published or empirical statistical evidence to support such correlations?

I partially agree to the statement "the main drivers of project success are rarely of a technical nature". The inclusion of PMI Talent triangle is the evidence (http://www.pmi.org/learning/talent-management-resources.aspx) for my disagreement. Your recommendation on fixing the project management basics will help partially. With more and more projects, alignment of the projects to the strategy will not be an issue. As PMI Talent triangle and similar studies, project team power needs to be harnessed for which leadership and behavioral skills are important.

@David re this "This inherently suggests that a key metric that a PM should define early in their project, is how the success of the project will be measured by the stakeholders. "

That's what they call a home run!....well said!

For a project team who implement the project, a project is successful if the project is delivering the project on time, on budget and within scope. However, this project may be a failure project for portfolio management team if ROI is not positive.

I've seen some projects that were guided by the triple constraint , the proposed methodology earlier. But they can not be called successful , because the satisfaction of interested parties was not. The most common activities of people are interested in my business effect. Therefore, in my view necessary for the success of the project to use the flexible definition of success . So I agree with the author

A feel-good article. Project managers do have value

I think the ultimate value of success is realizing business value. If we can do that with reasonable outputs (cost containment, risk reduction..etc) the project has succeeded.

@Mark, your two posts are great. Thanks for those adds.

Bit of a Deming nerd myself.

culture, talent and process.
Those items have to do with people. We can get the best of them if the team knows clearly what to do and also about what the importance and the main purpose of the project are.

For me that's the common denominator, having people happy and providing guidance towards the project, it's likely the project will succeed
. "here is when the PM plays a key role"

Very good post, thanks!!!

Very well said, nice article.

True, the drivers are the basics of the project management culture and discipline within the project organization.

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