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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. 

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  1. David Burton
    David Burton 15 October 2020, 02:59 PM

    Some really interesting thoughts, which ostensibly might seem aimed at public-sector projects, but are applicable much more widely.

  2. David Eggleton
    David Eggleton 16 December 2020, 02:21 PM

    Thanks David, we always tend to focus on public sector projects because it tends to be much easier to get access but we really do appreciate the amazing things that happen in the private sector and we are glad to see that it’s widely applicable Thanks Martin we’re looking at how practitioners have used the 2015 conditions for project success report in their own work to identify and hopefully disseminate examples of best practice and fit; we hope to present that work very soon! Thanks Hugo, on behalf of the team we absolutely agree on the importance of your questions about ‘how much’. We wish that we could answer them right now but we do have the opportunity to work together to answer them in the future. I think we are in total agreement on the idea that it’s always useful to return to first principles even partway through a project. Once you get those foundational ideas on solid ground then things seem to flow much more easily. As I’m discovering with this research project, I’ve also learnt how to let go and give my research assistants the freedom to accomplish tasks the way they see fit and the project has definitely gained a lot from them.

  3. Daniel Nicholls
    Daniel Nicholls 15 October 2020, 03:48 PM

    To get involved or for more on the new 'Dynamic Conditions for project success' research please visit the below web page:

  4. Martin Samphire
    Martin Samphire 08 December 2020, 05:29 PM

    The outcome or benefits should drive all projects - and the person accountable for specifying and realising the desired outcome is the Sponsor role. The 2015 report on Conditions for Project Success showed that most had to do with good governance, including having effective sponsors. Organisational Boards need to be clearer about their expectations and hold sponsors to account more - not blame the project manager(s)!

  5. Hugo Minney
    Hugo Minney 10 December 2020, 10:01 AM

    As previous commentators have pointed out, the article falls into two halves – what you need to do, and where your attention needs to be. Most of the research (see Daniel Nicholls’ link to APM’s research section) asks about what we need to do. How much difference does diversity make? How much collaboration is enough? What input from new technology such as data analytics? As our understanding of the characteristics of the most successful projects grows, we realise how much the approach (what we do) needs to be tailored to the situation (typically, the personalities and wants of the individuals on the project teams and put forward by the major stakeholders). When we ask where our attention needs to be, the picture is clearer. A focus on activity and task will result in the tasks getting done, but often stakeholder expectations are not met and benefits are not realised. Martin Samphire puts the emphasis on leadership – but leadership needs to be from all sides, not just a single person. Each stakeholder representative needs to clarify what they want, and be prepared to compromise. This applies to the project team themselves as well, who may argue that they want to deliver a specification (because that’s relatively easy). No, no, no. We (project managers) are here to solve a problem or exploit an opportunity, and our attention needs to be on that solution or that exploitation. Of course it means that what we do will change as the picture of the problem or opportunity becomes clearer – I know I exhort people to define their problem before starting benefits management (the “Y” of the X-Box model) but it’s never fixed in stone. Focus on the benefits. It’s hard to realise that you aren’t completely in control, but the future is in collaboration, and that means giving a little in order to gain an lot.