Determining Project Success

  • “How successful was your project?”
  • “My last project was terrible”
  • “This project is useless”

These are some statements that prevail from the convoluted world of project management. While project management may often be seen as a intuitive science that must have been present from the beginning of civilization, emergence of project management as a science and industry which is separate from other sciences is quite recent. The prevalence of project management can be traced back to 1960’s when the US and former USSR were engaged in the cold war. Things needed to be done on time, within budget, meeting expectations and according to requirements. Still, the statements at the beginning reveals that the science of project management is still in its infant ages. This article is about project success.

The definition of project success, how to measure it and who’s job to do and when to do it are all topics that lurk in murky waters. An often taken example is the Sydney Opera House, the world famous landmark structure. It is also notable for another aspect that is often not advertised and rightly so. It was a horrible failure when measured in terms of project management success. The final cost of construction ($102 million) is almost 1500 percent more than the baseline cost, the time spent escalated by 10 years and there were significant changes to the scope of the project throughout its construction. Many of the stakeholders involved in the project were not happy with its direction, leading to the resignation of J∅rn Utzon, who can be identified as the Project Manager. Given all these failures, would you, standing in front of the Sydney Opera House , call it a failure? More than 8 million people visits annually, hosting 1500 performances annually, now endorsed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is far from a failure.

So, even with the science of project management in place, with all it’s time, cost, quality, stakeholder objectives and clearly defined scope and requirements written down, projects can still succeed even if the management aspect fails. Then, is it not futile to go through all these procedures of controlling and reassuring and engaging with stakeholders, if project success has nothing to do with project management success? What exactly decides project success?
Today’s projects work within well defined project objectives that leads to some foreseen benefit or opportunity. This benefit or opportunity can be qualitative, such as:

  • Increased satisfaction of the end user
  • Increased profits for the organization
  • Decreased costs of doing a task

To quantifiably measure whether the project meets these objectives, a measurable component is introduced, the key performance indicator (KPI). KPI’s are used to quantifiably measure the qualitative objectives set for a project, over a given period of time after the operation. If a project is able to satisfy a number of it’s KPI or all of it, than it is, theoretically, a success. A typical KPI looks like:

  • 10% increase in the outputs produced annually within 2 years
  • 5% decrease in the electric bills of the warehouses within 6 months.

Given such a measure, project success should be easy to measure. Projects today often have two closing periods, the additional one being included for the purpose of measuring KPIs. The Project Closure Period is the one most of the outside world knows, when the deliverable is put to use. The Project Implementation Review is the one that is not mentioned much outside board rooms, specially if the KPIs are not met. But given all these steps to measure project success, then there should not be any question of whether a project is a success or a failures. Projects that do not meet project objectives of time, cost and quality should still be able to be successful, based on the KPIs. However, project success stories tend to disagree. Even companies with good history of successful projects makes blunders. Companies that are often associated with blunders complete successful projects. Reality doesn’t support the science.

The general rule of thumb, when deciding project success is that successful project management allows for successful projects. Even if the project management aspect is carried out successfully, projects still have the chance of not succeeding. Even if the management aspect is carried out incorrectly, they still have a chance of succeeding, but far lower than before. The science allows the percentages of success to be tipped in favor of the chance of failure. Project management drives projects towards a foreseen success, but if the image foreseen beforehand doesn’t exist, then failure is a more likely scenario, even with good project management.

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