On time and on budget… is that all you want?

Deliver your project on time and on budget and it must be successful, right? In the project world, success has more facets than these common measures.

Planning the green energy Death Star

Photo credit: Stéfan via photopin cc

I’ve seen several projects that would be considered successful by the on time, on budget definition. But you might rethink this conclusion if I added that half the team left the organisation because of the brutal approach employed to hit the deadline, that project outputs weren’t adopted by customers, and that the project produced no lasting change. These projects actually destroyed value by consuming resources which could have been used elsewhere to greater effect.

By contrast, I was on the board of another project that exceeded the initial budget by more than 100% and was delivered almost 12 months behind schedule. Superficially this looks like a miserable failure. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover the project resolved what was probably the single largest issue for the customer base, replaced a flood of complaints to senior management with thanks for responding to feedback, and improved customer retention. Despite failing the time and budget test, this was a highly successful project. The board held a shared view of what success looked like, and worked closely with the project manager to address the many issues that surfaced along the way.

So what other factors should you consider? Project management guru Rob Thomsett asserts that there are seven project success factors:
1. Have satisfied stakeholders. Not all stakeholders are created equal. Stakeholders whose jobs are threatened by a project can be expected to be much less satisfied than the CEO who enjoys increased profitability as a result. You must identify which stakeholders must be satisfied and which ones can be overlooked.
2. Meet the project’s objectives / requirements. It’s usually not necessary to meet all the objectives for a project to be successful. You will need to deliver a sufficient number to make the project viable.
3. Meet an agreed budget.
4. Deliver the product on time.
5. Add value to the organisation. The project delivers sustained and tangible benefits.
6. Meet quality requirements.
7. Team satisfaction. How important is it that the team feel a sense of satisfaction and pride about their work? It’s not always necessary, but if the team’s welfare is low on the priority list, an experienced team who know what to expect will make the project manager’s life easier.

This is not to say that all these elements are equally important for every project. A proof-of-concept project may place little or no emphasis on adding value to the organisation — the intent is to discover whether the idea or product can add value in the long run. A project to create new system used directly by customers may place high emphasis on having satisfied stakeholders and meeting quality requirements but may have less regard for timeliness. Rob discusses these elements in more detail in his informative and entertaining book, Radical Project Management.

Understanding the relative importance of each criterion for any project creates the following benefits for the project manager:
1. Know how success will be judged. The primary benefit comes from knowing what’s important to the project governance board and how your performance will be evaluated.
2. Know how to respond when things don’t go to plan. If your project is tracking exactly to plan, chances are you’re still in the first week, your team only just discovered (or hasn’t told you) about the latest issue that will throw the plan into disarray, or you’re indulging in perception altering substances. Agreeing what’s important at the beginning helps you know which criteria can be traded off and which ones you absolutely must satisfy.
3. Know how to tailor communication. Different stakeholder groups will care more about different criteria. Knowing what matters most to each group enables you to address potential concerns and demonstrate understanding of that group’s needs in your communication.
4. Know where resources will be needed. Understanding the primary success factors provides guidance about how the budget may need to be invested. If quality is of the highest importance you’ll want to ensure funds are available for appropriate testing and sufficient representation from the people who will use project outputs.

Next time I’ll discuss how to apply this idea in managing projects.

Question: How is project success measured in your organisation?

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