Many project managers will proudly declare, "This project is a major success–we are delivering on-time and within budget." When you take time to talk to some of the customers of these projects, you hear a much different story. In many cases, the customer's version describes a product that was delivered that does not meet their expectations. In other cases, the customer's version describes processes utilized to deliver the project that were not very collaborative or customer friendly. I refer to cases where you eventually achieve the goals of the project but stakeholders are generally not happy with the way you get there as "winning ugly".
If there is more to project success than delivering within the boundaries of the triple constraint (time, cost, and quality/scope), how do you judge if a project is successful? In my experience these measures are a good start, but they do not portray the "total picture". Project success should also take into consideration the impact the project has on the organization, the processes utilized to deliver the project, and how customers feel about the project outcomes.
This post covers my thoughts on what should be considered when defining project success, as well as the project manager's accountabilities and responsibilities related to project success.
What does success look like?
In the context of project delivery, success is generally defined in terms of attainment of predefined goals. Projects are often judged to be successful based upon more than just the goals/objectives established in the project charter or project management plan–project managers lament this fact. Below are factors I consider when assessing project success.
- Time & Cost – Is the actual project delivery date and cost less than the baseline delivery date and cost (also taking into consideration the impact of approved changes)? Time and cost are the success factors that project managers talk about the most. These are the factors that project managers are directly responsible for managing. In addition, these success factors are relatively easy to measure and report on.
- Scope – Did the project deliver the "what" was expected to be delivered? Scope is not limited to the product features and functions. Scope also includes the deliverables that ensure that the product is properly implemented and supported. I have seen my share of projects viewed as failures due to the lack of attention to deliverables such as training, product marketing/adoption, and support processes.
- Quality – Does the product delivered perform the function it was intended to perform? Many project teams fall into the trap of judging product quality solely based upon the number of defects identified. All it takes is one or two defects to prevent the product from performing as intended. Quality related success measures should be judged based upon the ability to achieve operational goals (e.g., number of transactions processed, average calls per hour), as well as the ability to respond to product related problems.
- Process – Were processes consistently and effectively utilized to deliver key elements of the project? Processes such as change control, communications, and resource management can significantly influence the perceived success of the project. The predefined goals of the project may have been achieved, but if it was delivered without collaboration or with limited flexibility, stakeholders may not view the outcomes in a positive manner.
- Significance – Has the project delivered had a positive impact on the organization? Should projects that have limited or no impact on the organization be considered a success? As a project manager, you may say, "It is not my fault the project has not delivered the desired benefits to the organization." This may be true, however I have seen many examples of projects where what was delivered, or how it was delivered, had a direct impact on the benefits realized. I have also managed projects that were delivered late or over budget, but delivered benefits that far exceeded expectations, and therefore were considered a success.
- Stakeholders – Are stakeholders happy with the project outcomes? Stakeholders are the people that were involved in or impacted by the project. It is a problem if the overall stakeholder community, or large segments of the stakeholder community, do not speak positively about the project. Feedback can be a very subjective measure of success, but I do believe that how people "feel" is a valid component of the success of the project. In most instances, specific actions can be taken to change the nature of feedback received from stakeholder–do not take this feedback too lightly.
6 Ways to Improve the Success of the Project
I am a firm believer in the fact that the project manager role significantly influences the success of the project. Below are six project management best practice areas that have a direct impact on the success of the project.
- Project Organization – Forming the project team sounds pretty basic, but it is amazing how many project teams launch the project without performing stakeholder analysis, and defining the project organization. Important elements of the project organization include project sponsors, the core team, and understanding other key stakeholders. Getting the "right" people engaged in the "right" roles has a significant impact on the project teams' ability to meet the needs of the organization.
- Baseline Plan – As a project manager you are introduced to new situations all the time (new clients and new projects), and it is extremely important to hit the ground running leading project teams through the planning process. Adapting a consistent planning approach from client to client, and project to project, significantly improves outcomes of the project planning process (both time to market and quality of the plans). Strong baseline plans represent the foundation for a successful project delivery process.
- Measure Project Performance – This best practice area involves keeping your eye on the appropriate project performance measures to proactively identify potential problems, and engage the team to identify and implement corrective actions. Effective use of project performance metrics helps the project manager identify and implement the appropriate project delivery adjustments before they become "big problems" that stakeholders are not quick to forget.
- Collaborate – Stakeholder engagement in project activities has a significant impact on how people feel at the end of the project. Project managers enhance the collaboration on a project by facilitating effective team meetings, implementing collaboration processes & tools, and providing consistent and useful project updates.
- Manage Change – Change is an inevitable component of managing a project – nothing works out exactly as planned. The project manager effectively manages change by maintaining the appropriate balance between control and discipline to manage to the baseline plan, and flexibility to adapt the plans to meet customer expectations. The level of control and rigor around analyzing and approving changes should be appropriately "sized" to both the organization and the project.
- Close the Project – At the end of a project, many project managers are busy preparing for their next project or client, and miss a prime opportunity to leave a lasting impact on the client organization. Project closure starts with effectively shutting down project activities, validating all product deliverables are complete and key product issues closed, and smoothly transitioning resources to new roles. The second aspect of this best practice area is preparing the project performance report (also referred to as the post-project assessment). Creating the project performance report includes gathering input from key stakeholders, and identifying improvement actions to be implemented either as part of the closeout process or for future projects. These improvement actions can significantly influence stakeholders' perception of project success.