What Defines Project Success?

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By Linda Agyapong

During lunch one day, project managers Jim, Mary and Alex got into an argument over who was best adhering to their industry’s project success criteria. They all had sound arguments. The problem was, however, an “industry standard” did not appear to exist.

Jim argued that he follows the good old “triple constraints” or “iron triangle” concept (i.e., time, cost and scope). Mary sharply retorted that she follows the “quadruple constraints” concept (i.e., time, cost, scope and quality), where the “quality” minimized bugs or defects. Alex quickly asserted that he is the best project manager because in addition to what both Jim and Mary did, he reduces risk, meets stakeholder expectations, and his projects generally add value to the organization in extra areas.

Before we jump into crowning who we think should be project manager of the year, let’s take a trip down some project manager memory lane based on recent research I performed.

Although PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) makes certain recommendations, the subject of project success criteria has been evolving for more than five decades.

In her report, Kate Davis summed up the different success criteria throughout the years:

1970s: Project success was centered on the “operations side, tools and techniques (‘iron triangle’).”

1980s: The technical components of the project and its relationship with the project team and project manager.

1990s: The “critical success factor” framework, and its subsequent dependence on both external and internal stakeholders.

21st century: The focus has primarily been on the stakeholder.

Davis isn’t the only one pointing out the changing criteria. Many academics and authors have noted the differences, including:

1980s: Jeffrey K. Pinto and Dennis P. Slevin expressed their frustration in a Project Management Journal article by asking, “How can we truly assess the outcome of a project when we (in the project management field) cannot fully agree on how project “success” should be determined?”

Late 1990s: David Baccarini from the Curtin University of Technology recounted in a Project Management Journal article that “a review of the project management literature provides no consistent interpretation of the term ‘project success.’”

2008: Graeme Thomas and Walter Fernández said that “although IT project failure is considered widespread, there is no commonly agreed definition of success and failure.” They described project success as being “a difficult and elusive concept, with many different meanings,” and hence called it protean (likening it to the Greek sea-god Proteus), based on its ability to continually change its “form to avoid capture.”

The current decade: Hans Georg Gemünden criticized the triple constraints for failing to consider other factors, such as stakeholder impact, since value lies in the eye of the beholder.” He recommended project success criteria be based on its “targeted outcome and impact” to the organization’s business case.

Standish Group’s 2015 CHAOS Report redefined a successful project from one being “on time, on budget and on target,” to one being “on time, on budget and with a satisfactory result.” This redefinition was to ensure project deliverables met stakeholder expectations and also added value to the organization.

So based on the above, which of our three project managers (Jim, Mary or Alex) should be crowned project manager of the year?  

Posted by Linda Agyapong on: June 27, 2017 08:27 PM | Permalink

Comments (43)

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Great topic. It's worth some discussion, in fact, we wrote a whole book (literally) on this. It's called "Driving Project, Program, and Portfolio Success" (CRC Press), and it centers on the idea that although a project's product is sometimes judged at 'handover', it's not really as success until it provides sustainable triple-bottom-line benefits. And...we think that project managers can benefit from a shift in mindset to 'design' their projects (to quote the quotable Jack Duggal) to consider these long-term elements. That's our story (literally) and we're sticking with it.

Rich Maltzman and Dave Shirley

Rich - that is very true. I agree with you that there should be a paradigm shift from "checking off boxes" at 'handover', to ensuring that the project's product is really beneficial to the stakeholders.

Should there be a process to compute satisfaction level at closure of the project..??

Success of the project lies in it balancing aptly in all the fields of importance in the industry it is serving.. if it is serving timely value to the end users and there is a sense of happiness that it brings in to all the stakeholders (people affected directly and indirectly whether they were active part of the project or not). The bigger question which comes to my mind while i type this is how do we measure level of satisfaction when a project is considered to be successful.

Exactly so Paras... you might think that setting up a success criteria at the onset of the project would help. However for projects that take so long to complete, usually by the time the project is over (e.g. spanning over a year or so), the market would have changed and hence the criteria that was agreed on about a year ago, is no longer valid.

Am not sure if we can say agile is the answer for all of this, but as you rightly pointed out, we need a standard measurement especially at the industry level, since each organization seem to have their own individual measuring scale.

Excellent, thanks for sharing

Good article, the question about project success is always a good topic. I like Jeff Berman approach: Project success = (on time on budget) x business value. This is a good formula (must not be taken literally). Note the plus and multiplication signs. Schedule and budget matters, but "business value" multiplies!. Imagine if your project doesn't add value, it multiplies by zero.
you can have CPI or SPI below zero, but if the project add "business value" it eventually pays itself. Look at the opposite, if you finish on time and on cost but no value, it doesn�t matter the triple constraint.
So, control time and cost, but above all seek business value. For this, project managers must not only "manage the project", they must check if it's the correct project for the business.

Thanks, well thought-out

The predicted success of the product ideally would have been vetted out in the Business Justification efforts. If the Business has formulated their justification and requirements, the project itself is geared around delivering the product within the defined parameters.

Now, that said, this is where the benefit of agile, phases, checkpoints come into play, taking a pause to reevaluate the product in work still solves the original business problem or remains in alignment with the original justification or organizational strategy.

What is important, is that these things are being thought about and discussed - that is half the battle.

Thanks so much Linda.

To me projects are a success if they realize the benefits for which they where done!

Sergio, oh wow!! That formula is very thought provoking. Thanks a lot for sharing!

Nice article. Thanks for sharing.

Good Article, Linda. Judging by the various comments on your article, next we should try to determine objectively; what constitutes a successful project? Many of my projects have a "check the box" mentality, where the project is done when certain things are done. As Andrew points out, "Business value" is incorporated at the beginning when the business case, budget, and scope is approved. As long as the project stays within the parameters set at the beginning (with appropriate Changes), the project is considered a success.

Success criteria is going to vary somewhat by industry, ROI, Project Spend v. Profit Realized, other monetary benefits or Stakeholder satisfaction, better ease of use in software, other things that cannot be easily monetized. Success criteria is going to vary within an organization as well. What's good for one division, may be horrendous for another.

AND the debate continues!

James - I certainly agree with your point on the business value, and frankly that is my opinion as well. Unfortunately, since my opinion doesn't count, i guess the bigger question is "can we get an industry definition of project success criteria?" Once the criteria is established, then any project that satisfies that criteria is obviously successful.

Excellent .. thanks for sharing.
The projects constraints to be met is always there, basic measurement of if a project is successful or not, but my two cents, beyond that bigger success is surrounding client satisfaction since that's from where we can get returning customers and therefore more business.

Good article! Thanks for your sharing.

Excellent.Thanks for sharing.

The evolution of Project Management closely aligns with the evolution of leadership, ie. task orientated, then people orientated, then organizational strategic orientated, now pretty much a hybrid of all.

The evolution of Project Management closely aligns with the evolution of leadership, ie. task orientated, then people orientated, then organizational strategic orientated, now pretty much a hybrid of all.

The evolution of Project Management closely aligns with the evolution of leadership, ie. task orientated, then people orientated, then organizational strategic orientated, now pretty much a hybrid of all.

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