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"All projects succeed" - what are we aiming at?

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The APM vision of a world where all projects succeed is a simple statement. Yet it challenges us to improve our performance and think deeply about both projects and success.

We know that applying professional project and programme knowledge makes a big difference. Our past success suggests that when everyone applies current project management professional knowledge consistently in all sectors of society, we will deliver more projects successfully but will all projects succeed?

Project management tools and techniques are fundamentally based on our ability to imagine a better future and plan the steps needed to achieve it. Our past experience helps us plan more accurately and success is more assured. New, leading edge projects, those attempting to make changes that havent been made before, are inherently more difficult to deliver successfully. As we cant plan accurately for the unknown, we do more upfront research or take smaller steps towards the goal. This approach usually works but not in all situations.

Many technology and business change projects need end users to be involved in the design of the project so that the on the ground situation is understood and the right actions are taken to achieve the projects benefits. The solution is to talk to more people to determine what should be done. The catch is, that doing this starts the change that the project will deliver; people begin to feel the impact of the project because they are aware of its planning and start reacting. The project cant get the information it needs to make a fully informed decision to start, without actually starting the project.

Projects of this type have a feedback loop between the benefits the project is aiming to achieve and the change it must make to deliver the benefits. This leads to a need to increase understanding during the course of the project, requiring changes to deliverables, costs and timescales. These projects are inherently an adventure. We should expect to make discoveries during the course of their delivery that change the initial business case expectations. In fact it is essential that we actively look for and manage these issues if the benefits are to be achieved.

Yet at the start of any project, irrespective of the type, project managers are taught to make every effort to fix timescales, costs and quality targets. We are often required to give confidence that our delivery projections are accurate and reliable before being allowed to start. This firmly sets expectations. Unsurprisingly we regularly appear to have difficulty delivering adventurous projects against these expectations, often resulting in the impression that the project is a failure.

Project management theory does not recognise that there are different types of project that require different approaches to deliver success. We teach one project management approach for all project situations and rely on the project managers experience to tailor the solution and manage expectations. Making the leap to recognise that not all projects are the same, and different management solutions are required for different situations, will help all project managers identify how to deliver all projects more successfully.

Success is often defined as delivering the benefit within the original time, costs and quality parameters. This is a simple definition to understand but it is not objective and comparable across different projects. Consider cost as an example: where do we measure success from, the outline costs in the initial brief or the last approved change control before final project closure? Whose perspective do we take, the contractors profit margin or the clients business case performance?

The world we live in is complicated; there are many examples of projects that didnt deliver to original timescales (London Eye, 2000) or costs (Olympics, 2013), but they are considered a success. Achieving project success is a complex challenge. Maintaining control during the project delivery is important. Clearly making timely decisions helps. Keeping alignment between stakeholder expectations and the reality of project delivery is essential. Delivering a successful project is definitely not as simple as just hitting time, cost and quality targets. Yet these are the only parameters of success we try to measure. An objective measure of success is needed to compare projects and drive improved project management performance.

If we spend some time as a profession understanding the different types of project and how to really measure success, then we will be on our way to truly understanding how to deliver our vision!

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  1. Robert Wilkinson
    Robert Wilkinson 07 July 2014, 10:38 AM

    It seams to me that the common thread here is managing expectations.As humans we know when we have done it well. Being able to measure how well we have done it would be a real benefit in learning for the future.How could we go about developing a measurement framework for "Expectations" ?

  2. Andy Osborn
    Andy Osborn 27 June 2014, 02:24 PM

    It was Mario Andretti who once said "if you're fully in control, then you're not going fast enough".In that context, following Pat's comment, then the success criteria should be "the expected/right proportion of projects succeed".in a corporate forum last year, we looked at the validity of the aspiration that "All Projects Succeed", and recognised that the value of the statement is in its simplicity.  In much the same way as "Zero Harm", even though tacitly it can be recognised as the unrealistic aspiration, the value is in having an aspiration to inform endeavours which improve the rate of success.  And as for "Zero Harm", this needs a sense of proportion (or what is generally known as common sense) to moderate excesses of effort and expenditure in pursuit of an ideal.Even failed projects can contribute to success, if there is a willingness to learn lessons which in future increase the likelihood of positive outcomes.

  3. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 27 June 2014, 11:59 AM

    A project is ultimately successful if, and only if the vast majority of stakeholders consider it a success. The simplistic assessment of 'on time and on budget' or the 'iron triangle' that adds scope are largely meaningless.  Project management will continue to struggle as a discipline until its focus shifts to the strategic management of projects and focuses on enabling the organisations and societies that commission projects to be successful.  There is an interesting blog on this topic at: even with this paradigm shift, aiming to be successful all of the time is a recipe for mediocrity. Innovative challenges by definition involve risk and risk has an up side and a down side. The sensible place to be is to recognise that innovative, challenging projects that can make a difference will inevitably have the occasional failure. If you dont have failures you are simply not trying hard enough.  Everyone could succeed in running the 100 meters if success was defined as completing the run in 10 minutes. Most elite athletes can be successful if the benchmark for success is set at 10 seconds. But only the very best win a major event such as the Olympics and there is only one winner. The challenge faced in business project is setting a challenging but realistic benchmark for success and dealing efficiently with the projects that dont achieve that standard.