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How to make your project a success

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We all want our projects to be successful and like to think they are when they have finally been completed but do we really know how to identify project success? Because unless we can identify project success there will always be that nagging doubt that maybe that last project wasn't quite as good as it could have been.

What factors contribute to a successful project and how can we define meaningful success criteria? It should be simple enough - after all surely success is simply achieving the project goals within a specified time and cost?

In reality the definition of a successful project can be different for different teams and groups involved, even when they have all previously agreed the project goals; and that's because the final deliverable is viewed from different perspectives. End users need to be satisfied with the final outcome – that may involve being satisfied with the look and feel of the final product in addition to it's functionality. A product may be fit-for-purpose but is not appealing to end users – or, indeed, may not be truly fit-for-purpose but end-users are satisfied anyway.

So defining success, clearly and unambiguously, is not always straightforward.

Classic examples of projects that can be viewed as a success from one perspective but not others are the Olympic Games. The Rio Games were a success for us Brits with our record tally of medals yet the budget for putting on the games was more than 50% over the estimates so it is certainly not a success in terms of the money spent.

Less high-profile projects tend to focus on the hard facts that affect the perception of success such as the amount of money spent, or the time taken to complete it, and less so on the intangible feelings about the outcome – the feel-good factor. Nevertheless if both the tangible and intangible factors can be pre-defined early on in a project then the project, overall, is much more likely to achieve it's goals and the "feeling" of success as well as success on paper.


Defining Success Criteria

It is fairly obvious then that defining project success is essential for every project but it is surprising how many projects for which this is not the case. This is usually because those involved believe that well-documented, agreed and approved requirements obviate the need for specific success criteria to be defined and believe the requirements to be one and the same thing as the success criteria.

But clearly with success being viewed from different perspectives we need success criteria that are both quantitative and qualitative, specific and measurable; criteria that balance efficient use of resources during the project with benefits to the end-users and the organisation going forward. These do not equate with a set of requirements but with the delivery of a set of benefits (tangible and intangible).

We all know about the traditional cost, time and scope criteria but we may also need to include:

  • specific organisational benefits (such as cost-savings)
  • a measure of end-user satisfaction
  • reliability 
  • ease-of-use
  • ease-of-maintenance

Unfortunately we don't live in an ideal world so rarely do projects meet all of these success criteria but being more aware of them and being able to measure them can lead to more successful outcomes - if not perfect outcomes.

This is a project management fundamentals blog written and sponsored by Parallel Project Training


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  1. Helen Garcia
    Helen Garcia 20 December 2016, 10:53 AM

    Thanks Paul for your insight. I agree a project can be measured on many success criterias, but I think we should also be looking at project success in terms of the people and the positive actions teams bring. This can be through communication with stakeholders, managing change, dealing with challenging objectives successfully etc. From my experience of consulting a project has become a success just by leading in clear, honest and concise communication to stakeholders whether they have a large or smaller impression on the projects deliverables.

  2. Helen Garcia
    Helen Garcia 03 January 2017, 07:27 AM

    Thank you Paul, an interesting article and definitely a good reminder to us all to set tangible success criterias. I would still challenge the clarity of the below mentioned; 1. a measure of end-user satisfaction - would this be based upon the initial customer requirements through voice of the customer or would you suggest other means? 2. reliability & ease of use - would this be measured through other means rather than that of customer surveys? 4. ease-of-maintenance - I would suggest this would be more long term data collection although it too is dependent on the project size and complexity.