What makes a project successful?

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Having just finished reading the Association for Project Management’s Projecting the Future research paper, one of its main assertions really resonated with me – that the profession is shifting towards a new type of project management or ‘PM 4.0’ as the article described it, whereby future projects/professionals will be judged on delivering ‘outcomes’ as well as traditional time, cost and quality success measures.

This chimed with me because even back in 2009 when I first came into the project profession studying my MSc in Project and Enterprise Management at University College London, our lecturers ingrained into us the need for projects to strive for and be measured against the additional stakeholder benefits or ‘value’ they deliver in conjunction with the more traditional ‘iron triangle’ success parameters of time, cost and quality.

Many case studies and examples were offered up as evidence of this with the most notable being the Sydney Opera House, which was heavily delayed and significantly over budget when finally completed making it at the time a ‘failed project’ when viewed against conventional project success measures. The fact that the Sydney Opera House is now one of the most recognisable built structures in the world - almost inevitably paying back its Return on Investment many times over just through the mass of tourists it’s attracted over the years - with hindsight makes it a successful project (outcome). The penny therefore dropped for me during my postgraduate studies and I’ve actively tried to apply the principle of striving to deliver as much additional stakeholder value as possible when managing my projects over the last decade (or in the words of Projecting the Future - I’ve aimed for outcomes-based successes as much as I’ve tried to meet the conventional iron triangle).

So much so that during my final round of judging for the APM's Project Professional of the Year award earlier this year, I attempted to convince the judging panel that the success of my most recent project was not only achieving the scheme’s key objective – to install new signals and their associated equipment along a significant stretch of Cornish railway on time, within budget and to quality specifications - but also all the additional benefits we delivered to key stakeholders and Cornwall in general. Some of this additional value was less tangible and easy to measure or quantify but no less appreciated by stakeholders such as a local heritage railway in Bodmin who benefitted from our donation of redundant signalling equipment my project recovered at the end of the scheme; or work commuters thankful the project enabled extra trains to run between Penzance and Plymouth; or the council and local businesses who will benefit from this additional train capacity throughout the region. Whether I was successful in getting the judges to buy into this argument – well I guess I’ll find out at the awards ceremony on the 18th November.

However, after reading the APM’s Projecting the Future and a recent report by the National Audit Office which stated the traditional time, cost and quality success measures are outdated and should now primarily be based on stakeholder perception, this has led me to question whether it’s time for the profession to move on from trying to achieve the ‘iron triangle’ completely? Can a project be deemed a success if it was delivered late or over budget but also delivers benefits identified at its front end and additional stakeholder value not previously envisaged when initiating the scheme? Or is it still just as imperative that projects strive to meet the traditional success measures of time, cost and quality and perhaps we need to add a fourth parameter? I would be interested to hear my fellow project professionals’ thoughts and experiences.

Image: Virinaflora/Shutterstock.com

Spencer Hobbs

Posted by Spencer Hobbs on 13th Nov 2019

About the Author

I’ve worked in the engineering and construction industry for 10 years, delivering large complex multi-million pound infrastructure projects which include the upgrade of London’s King’s Cross station. I won the APM’s Project Professional of the Year award in 2016 and became the first person to be short-listed as a finalist for the award again this year. I was in the first cohort to achieve the APM’s ChPP last year and I am also an APM Ambassador.

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