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Grand designs and defining project success

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"70 per cent of projects fail!", or so I am told. I'm sure that there are few other stats out there that paint an even worse picture. Are things really that bad? Are we really that incompetent at delivering projects? For an organisation that awards post-nominals based on our ability to demonstrate competence, is there something amiss? 

What is failure really?
Wait a minute, what is 'project failure'? Or perhaps a better question, what is 'project success'? Well, the APM have handily provided a definition for 'project success' on their website, which states that:

'A project is usually deemed to be a success if it achieves the objectives according to their acceptance criteria, within an agreed timescale and budget.'

So, based on this definition, if we spend a little bit more money than we planned to and/or run a little bit over on our timescales and/or the quality is not quite as good as we would like then the project is a failure. If this is true then I can understand why it is said that 70% of projects fail, but something still doesn't seem right to me.

If you were to build your dream house and planned to move in by Christmas but didn't finish till the summer, have you failed and set to be disappointed for the rest of your days? What if it cost 2% more than your budget, but you were still able to fund it? Or you did move in by Christmas but the colour scheme in the guest bedroom wasn't quite what you wanted?  I would consider this a success, I have my dream house after all.

In a previous edition of Project Manager Today, Dr Brendan D'Cruz asked the question 'Suppose a project is delivered within its constraints, but is then not used as it was intended or does not deliver the expected benefits. Is that actually a successful project?'  So if you built that dream house, on time, to cost and to the acceptance criteria (i.e. A success by the definition above) but could not move in because you could not afford the mortgage repayments and had to sell, is that a success? I don't think so.

Redefining ‘Success’
So if our definition of project success doesn't work, is there a better one?  If there is, I think it will be one that is based on benefits rather than outputs, one that talks about being 'timely', rather than being 'on time' and one that aims to be ‘cost effective’, rather than on ‘budget’. 

Do you think project success seems more achievable with a definition of success based on benefits, timeliness and cost effectiveness?

Photo courtesy of Tom Olliver via flickr.


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  1. Adrian Pyne
    Adrian Pyne 28 May 2015, 10:00 PM what we give. 30-70% (take your pick of research) success is not about criticising US, its about comparative performance and how our profession can be better. We don't need a lot of energy on debate what success is or isn't - the above will do - well done guys!5% wasted investment is POOR performance in manufacturing. So, like it or not, at 30% at best, we professionals have some way to go.But NOT as far as most organisations with significant investment in projects need to go. Projects need to be less of a virus and more part of the body. To be successful professionals, we need a landscape fit for us to work in. And THAT is what Organisational Project Management is about. Lots of bloggy bits on OPM at the non-commercial

  2. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 23 May 2015, 11:25 AM

    Different projects have different success drivers - time may be important (eg, the projects for the Olympics), cost may be important, other values may be important. The challenge is getting stakeholders to think about value and real success and weed them off of the simplistic ‘time and budget’ view of success - just because they are easy to measure does not make them useful.But this is hardly a new topic as this 2007 paper from our library demonstrates  The challenge is making people think sensibly. 

  3. Carolyn Dougherty
    Carolyn Dougherty 23 May 2015, 08:14 AM

    Thanks for this--I completely agree, and have never been impressed by this way of looking at things. Additionally, if I spend 20,000 on a feasibility study which determines that a proposed project, that would cost say 2M, wouldn't deliver the expected benefits, and the project is cancelled, does that count as a failure or a success? I personally would say the latter.

  4. Daniel Nicholls
    Daniel Nicholls 19 May 2015, 10:00 AM

    Many thanks Matt and Merv you both raise some good points.Matt, in terms of project success you may be interested in our 'Conditions for Project Success' research report we recently launched at the APM Conference.  For more information please use the link below: 

  5. Merv Wyeth
    Merv Wyeth 17 May 2015, 05:31 AM

    Hi Matt,This is a really interesting blog. Thanks for keeping up the ProgM SIG tradition of contributing regularly to this column.I may have missed it but ... this is the first time I have seen the term value for money [VFM] used in conjunction with discussions on project success and failure. So, this happens to be something of a 'light bulb moment' for me personally.The reports, findings and recommendations of the National Audit Office [NAO] make compelling reading on success and failure in Govt. Projects. See for example: Initiating Successful Projects and Over-Optimism of Government Projects .I am delighted you mentioned the upcoming APM Benefits Summit #apmbmsummit because I agree with you that this will be a key topic for our one day conference on 25th June and Executive Briefing the day before [Incidentally both represent excellent VFM or as I say in my own blog #eventroi!]Merv