Time to redefine project success

by Mustafa Hafızoglu

What is project success? Specifically, how do you define project success? A very simple question to answer as most of the Project Managers will tell us triple constraints, namely, time, cost, and scope, as being the success criteria. On the other hand, this question becomes complex if you ask it to customers or C-levels or even to competitors. Will they define project success as Project Managers do? Probably not! That’s why this is a simple but a complex question that has different answers depending on who answers it. It’s time to redefine project success.

It’s very crucial to understand the different perspectives in order to define project success. Otherwise, even if Project managers complete the project on time, within budget and scope, and call the project very successful, other stakeholders may find it unsuccessful. Over half of large scale change efforts fall short of expectations mainly due to a focus on individual projects and judge their performance only based on time, scope, budget according to Boston Consulting Group and PMI (2016). Even if our projects are completed by satisfying cost, time, and scope, if these projects do not deliver the expected outcomes, that is they do not align with the strategy, executing the strategy will fail. Hence success should be defined considering the stakeholder expectations ensuring that the results of the project should contribute to the strategy. 

We are on the edge of a shift from a mindset of targeting scope, cost, and schedule to considering stakeholder expectations and introducing benefits to contribute to the strategy. PMI’s Talent Triangle was introduced to mention the importance of leadership and business intelligence skills for Project Managers in order to support long-range strategic objectives. Moreover, the latest version of the PMBOK added Stakeholder Management as a new knowledge area, realizing the importance of the different perspectives and expectations. So, what does it mean to redefine project success?

As Jan La Van stated, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is!” the gap between the strategy and the execution should be filled. The new definition of project success can fill this gap. The main challenge to achieve this shift to the new definition is time dependency. 

Projects have a starting and an ending point, so they are temporary by definition. At the end of the project, it can be evaluated based on scope, cost, and schedule, but not benefits because benefits are generally realized after the completion of the projects. Here is the dilemma: How can PMs be responsible for the benefits which will be realized after the project closure? PMI’s latest Practice Guide Benefit Realization Management introduces benefit owners to overcome this dilemma, and each project is expected to first identify and then execute benefits. 

Tomorrow will be different from today for all of us and also for Project Managers. Change is needed, we need to redefine project success: 

  • Adopt a multi-dimensional approach to the concept of project success. 
  • If organizations are planning to achieve some strategic benefits from a project, they should incorporate these benefits as predetermined measures to assess project success.
  • Try to specify project objectives as early as possible.


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