What does project success really look like?

I was discussing success of projects with a group recently. The conversation centred around what success really looked like. After several comments I reminded the workshop members that the business case and the PID are designed to help identify success but will not in themselves create the results. The discussion was interesting as the group expressed real difficulty in developing clear success measures.

I suggested that this was not entirely unexpected as the organisation spent little time identifying what success looked like. It had great ideas but failed to capture what success for these ideas actually means.

The organisation in question deals with improving health care where clear success measures are very difficult to produce. However, this difficulty is made worse by a lack of investment in time to think through and explore key success measures.

I asked the group what kept the project or projects going. After all there is an investment – time, money and resources. The response was interesting and it was not the first time I have heard it. The response; an act of faith keeps the project going; it will deliver success, eventually. But, and they guessed this part, they said it would deliver success eventually but did not know what success looked like and nor did senior managers.

Measurement criteria are essential. The criteria help you determine whether the project is on schedule; whether you should carry on with the project; whether you should add elements or take away elements for the projects, whether additional resources are required or whether to abandon!

One of the benefits of applying a rigorous project management methodology (PRINCE2, APM, and PMI) is you follow steps and stages in a logical order. As one person commented working your way through a methodology ‘slows you down, you cannot leap into planning until you know what you are planning for.’ So, in working your way through whichever methodology you use, ensure you spend time developing clear measures of success. Hold workshops, discuss with fellow project team members or key stakeholders. You may not get it right first time but ensure no matter how painful it is you develop clear success measures.

Without clear success you are shooting for the moon. You may hit the moon but more with luck than judgement.

More and more organisations are looking at the justification for running a project. Clear success measures support this process.

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4 Responses to What does project success really look like?

  1. Rob,

    This is one of the clearest, most succinct descriptions of project success I’ve read. Great post.

    Many organizations don’t take the time to really determine what ‘success’ really means.

    I’m involved in a project like that now…nobody can describe to me what the successful outcome of this project will be other than ‘the software will be released’. In this particular instance, the software is a web platform that people don’t “have” to use…it is something that they “want” people to use….but they haven’t thought through how to get people to “want” to use it.

    Thanks again for the great post.

  2. Ron says:

    Eric, thanks for the great feedback, always appreciated.


  3. Ravi Raghavendra says:

    Greetings Ron,

    Thanks for bringing the concept of success for projects in such a simple and succulent manner!!

    I have been working with projects in multiple capacities, and when I worked in helping a project more like an external consultant, I realized the value of “Focusing”. How do we get focus if we don’t know what are we trying to achieve. So in the first facilitation round, I put up big poster in “What does the success of this project mean to you
    mean to customer
    mean to business”
    The answers were mind boggling, they were all around the place and few convergences.
    When we grouped the inputs together, we had something like ~ 10 different aspects, and convergence was not very high. The team then realized that they were looking at the project as to how the blind men were looking at the elephant.
    We brainstormed further to bring it down to crisp 3 success points which the entire team agreed upon.
    I didn’t stop there, I put the senior management together (around 5 people), and did a similar exercise, and again had multiple inputs. Got it grounded with their agreement, and then showed the inputs that the team had come up with initially and what they agreed upon. The senior management realized that the goal setting exercise once done should be followed through very strongly with the project teams too. This led to a new behavior in the organization where the Senior Managers started to do similar exercises for all projects and followed it up with discussions with project teams.

    No guesses for what you think should have happened next !!!!

    Thanks again for bringing it out.


    • Ron Rosenhead says:

      Thanks for your response, much appreciated.

      You had a real advantage! Facilitation – not every project has the chance you obviously have. It seems to me that they rush off at the word project thinning it demands action straight away. But, as you showed, how can you action something if you do not know the direction you are supposed to go? The other advantage is that you got the senior team together – you are needed! Yes, to get the senior team together in many of the companies we work in is very difficult and you are to be commended.

      Great stuff and many thanks for the response Ravi.

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