What Makes a Project Successful?

For project managers and organizations responsible for projects, the question of what makes a project successful is almost an existential question, a question of why we get up every morning and go to work.

And yet it’s often said that most projects fail. I’ve wondered what data and evaluation criteria are used to support this claim.

One of the most quoted proponents of the “most projects fail” thesis seems to be the Standish Group, which happens to focus on IT projects. The numbers are pretty miserable by their measures: Less than half of all IT projects are successful.

But if that’s true, why do all of us project managers (title or function) still have our jobs? How could the news be that bad without fundamental reform of the entire field of project management?

I can think of two explanations, and though they might sound like “the dog ate my homework” excuses, please bear with me for a moment.

The first is that failure is baked-in to projects. PMI defines a project as, “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.” In other words, they’re inventions, experiments, and even aspirations. Experiments are done precisely because you don’t know the results. Or another way to say it is that uncertainty is an essential attribute of projects – you can’t have one without the other.

Second, it could be that the “most projects fail” studies are a bit myopic. They tend to measure only “efficiency” factors, like schedule and budget. Can you exceed your budget or schedule constraints and still have a successful project? Some say “yes.”

There’s a lot of literature about project success, but the article I’ll refer to here is “Project Success: A Multidimensional Strategic Concept” (Shenhar, Dvir, Levy, and Maltz). In their view, “project efficiency” is just one of four dimensions of project success. The others are:

  • Impact on Customer
  • Business Success
  • Preparing for the Future

Once the project is completed, however, the importance of this dimension [efficiency] starts to decline. As time goes by, it matters less and less whether the project met its original resources constraints—in most cases, after about one year, it is completely irrelevant.

So there is such a thing as a project that is a successful failure – it failed its budget or schedule goals but was, overall, a strategic success for the organization. Much more could (and has) been said about this topic. But for now let’s go back to the snickering I heard earlier about this being a “dog ate my homework” excuse, or a doctor’s note for poor project management.

It’s still the PM’s most pressing responsibility to manage efficiency of the project, and there’s no excuse for not taking that responsibility seriously. But we have to keep it in perspective: the success question isn’t settled on “go-live” day, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the medium and long-term when pondering the project manager’s most existential question.

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Project Successful?”

  1. I think it is quite possible they are NOT talking about project failure but that a project may not deliver to the plans attributes/requirements in regards to schedule, budget or resource requirements. This is NOT the same as failure because value/innovation is generally delivered to expectations. Some stakeholders (heck all stakeholders) will gauge project success differently and this is something that can be managed (or at least risk mitigated) via a quality stakeholder analysis.

    Plans are nothing; planning is everything.
    Dwight D. Eisenhower

    Most projects are not experiments or failures, however many IT projects may find forecasting schedule, budget or resources crazy challenging. For those of you interested, the “cone of uncertainty” is a fascinating concept and hits home in many of our FileMaker projects.

    Apologize for being long winded, researching project management and business analysis has been a fascination to me the last couple years. Thanks for the post!


  2. Patrick O'Rourke

    Thanks Dwayne. I don't have access to a Standish Group study or their definition of "success".  But in the articles I've read I see a pretty consistent paraphrasing of the "traditional" view of success, such as this:

    "Contrary to the methodology employed by the Standish Group, which considers any project that is one day late, or one dollar over budget, or one requirement short of specifications to be unsuccessful, our experience suggests that…"

    I suppose such statements might just be strawmen that then can be torn down by "new studies." But I think from a practical view it's no strawman – PMs and other stakeholders get consumed with the numbers they can measure in the present.

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