Redefining success in project management

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What does success in project management look like? Traditionally, it has been defined using the iron triangle of time, scope and cost – with a project considered a success if it delivers its objectives on time and on budget, and a failure if not.

But with many projects failing on those fronts, and with the profession itself changing, success is being redefined. The Association for Project Management’s own Projecting the Future ‘big conversation’, started in 2019, talks about ‘Project Management 4.0’, whereby project managers become leaders, rather than entirely client-driven. This suggests changes to the triangle itself, shifting the focus from efficient outcomes to effective outcomes, with the benefits of a project integral from the start.

A fundamental change, but the path to success is slippery, according to APM’s 2015 report, Conditions for Project Success (the most-downloaded APM report ever), which interviewed 850 project professionals. Concluding that nearly 80 per cent of projects fail to wholly meet their planned objectives, it defined a path to success by identifying a host of crucial factors: planning and review, governance, team competence, goals and objectives, and commitment to success.

But projects are becoming ever-bigger and faster-moving, with shorter timeframes. For the UK government, major infrastructure projects are key to its transformative vision and to post-pandemic recovery. But such projects are bedevilled by uncertainty, complexity and shifting outcomes.

In response, in July, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) published Principles for Project Success, with a focus on outcomes looming large. IPA CEO Nick Smallwood wrote: “The success or failure of a project is often determined in its early stages… so we must get it right from the start.”

 ‘Not the image we want of the profession’

In the face of such challenges, APM is revisiting its 2015 report. A major study has been launched, led by academics Dr David Eggleton of the University of Sussex and associate professor Nicholas Dacre of the University of Southampton, working with researchers Dr Bernardo Cantone and Vasilis Gkogkidis. They stress that it is not about questioning the 2015 principles, but rather creating a ‘dynamic’ framework for project success by introducing additional concepts: sustainability, data analytics and machine learning, and more.

Collaboration is key: the study will draw on a broad, 20-strong steering group of project professionals, reflecting, Professor Dacre believes, the profession’s deep “thirst for understanding” about project success. “We know more about project failure than project success… this is not the image we want of the profession.”

As the study progresses, different concepts of success are emerging. Dr Eggleton points to diversity: “All of our interviewees so far have made it explicit that projects really benefit from a diverse team in terms of gender, ethnicity and disciplinary perspectives.”

At the conclusion, it is hoped there will be a better understanding of what project success looks like. It could look very different. After all, some big projects may have looked like failures in traditional terms, but ultimately had a successful legacy: the Sydney Opera House being a famous example. Learning how to measure incremental elements that emerge along the way, and to think about a project’s legacy from the outset (as with London 2012), will help to determine success from the start.

The age of benefits

It seems that project success will come to be defined – and achieved – by clarity in terms of benefits, objectives and outcomes from the start and throughout, rather than a box-ticking emphasis on process and progress. With large, politically driven projects especially vulnerable to shifting outcomes and budget blowouts, the old way seems a sure recipe for failure.

Hugo Minney, APM Fellow and co-chair of APM’s Benefits and Value SIG, sees success being driven by the way project management is evolving. Success focuses on long-projected benefits, whereas failure stems from lack of honesty on cost/risks and lack of ambition on benefits.

Benefits management, says Minney, is a way of finding the “truth” of a project (as opposed to the belief of the sponsor). Project success means picking projects “on the basis of the Benefits (and Value – which is benefits minus costs); and making decisions during project delivery which maximise benefits, rather than simply getting to the next milestone with minimum fuss”.

The profession, he suggests, would do well to move from the ‘Age of Budgets’ – where accountants rule – to the ‘Age of Benefits’, where benefits, rather than milestones, are maximised. This harks back to earlier eras – the ‘Age of the Cathedral’ and the ‘Age of Industry’, which prioritised outcomes and their benefits over cost and process.

The future is unwritten

Defining success in project management is an evolving process. And building for the future is challenging, especially when the future is unknown. But, as APM’s renewed focus on success gathers steam, two things seem clear: a much broader definition of success than the triangle will emerge. And success is achieved not just by measuring, but by creating the conditions for success from the start.

The pandemic will uncover new ways of looking at success too, by revealing how well existing and new projects can successfully manage change. Defining success through benefits and outcomes will be to the benefit of many more than just project managers and their clients.

To get involved or for more on the new 'Dynamic Conditions for project success' research please visit our research opportunities page. 

Further resources

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Conrad Heine

Posted by Conrad Heine on 14th Oct 2020

About the Author

Conrad Heine is a freelance journalist from New Zealand, based in London. He has written about the overseas campuses of British universities and post-disaster project management for the APM.

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