Project Success Criteria: Realistic Expectations for Optimal Results

  • from ITtoolkit.com

Image of a group of young business people cheering representing the need for project success criteria.

No project begins with the expecation that it will fail. Obviously, we all seek as much success as time and circumstances will allow (and maybe even more than that). But, just what is project success and can it really be achieved without defined criteria, shared expectations and tangible consensus? Read on to find the answers.

What is Project Success?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this questions.  The best answer may very well be "it all depends".  At the broadest level,  success is a measurement of timeliness, budget utilization, and the extent to which the primary project needs were met.  Is the project on time?  If so, that is success.  Is the project within budget?  If so, that is success.  Are the project results as planned and required?  If so, that is success.  But there's more to it.

This all sounds simple, but of course, the devil is in the details.  It may seem counterintuitive, but it is possible that your project could hit on all cylinders (time, money and results) and still not be considered a success.  Unfair?  Sure.  Reality?  Also sure.  And it's all because projects involve people - and people bring subjectivity to what otherwise should be a purely objective calculation.

To cope with the quirks of project success, project managers must understand and accept the dualities involved, and work to ensure that "all-inclusive" success criteria are properly defined before work begins. Stakeholders must be included in this process to ensure shared expectations and acceptance of the key operating premise - that success exists at many levels, and that any single outcome (positive or negative) may not be globally determinative.   That's the way to make success possible (and probable)!

Taking the First Step:  Inclusive Success Criteria

How does it work?  Success subjectivity is minimized through the use of pre-defined success criteria, so that success can be quantified before work begins.  Everyone will know what they are working towards, and when the time comes to measure success, established benchmarks will be available.  To address the uncertainty that subjective bias, interests and influences will bring, related "success criteria" should be defined in the most inclusive way possible, accounting for all primary variations in perspectives and dimensions:

  • Was the outcome successful considering the initial needs and how well it was met?  This is the measurement of deliverables success.

  • Was the project managed in a successful way considering how well it was organized, structured and executed, including timeliness, cost control, effectiveness of the project plan, and adherence to established project management standards?  This is the measurement of process success.

  • Did the "human element" perform successfully considering stakeholder engagement, teamwork, collaboration, communication and cooperation? This is the measurement of performance success.


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Making Success Criteria Realistic and Relevant

To ensure that established success criteria are suitably realistic, criteria development must follow the "define, align and approve" paradigm. In short, success criteria must be suitably specified in measureable terms, they must be aligned to project needs and constraints, and must be approved by all decision making stakeholders.

#1 Success Criteria Must be Specifically Stated

  • Success criteria must be stated in specific terms tied to the execution of the project management process, project tasks and related deliverables (as expressed in the Project Statement of Work and Governance Plans).   Specifically stated success criteria can be readily recognized and measured - which is the whole point.  Example:  "Success = Completion by the end of the 4th quarter".

#2 Success Criteria Must Be Sufficiently "Aligned"

  • Success criteria must be sufficiently aligned with the project vision, scope and work effort, considering the overall purpose, benefits to be realized, performing organization capabilities, priorities, risks, and related operational constraints.  Example: "Success = 5% reduction in problem reports relating to remote access".

#3 Success Criteria Must Be Appropriately Developed

  • Success criteria must be developed and defined using a structured, collaborative process, whereby all decision making stakeholders have the opportunity to provide input, challenge assumptions, negotiate and provide authorizing acceptance.  Example:  Project stakeholders should be selected for a "success criteria" committee.  This committee can be tasked with proposing initial criteria, soliciting feedback, organizing all input, and creating finalized results.  The committee should be given a specific timeframe for performing these tasks and producing viable end results.

Measure Success: Pass, Fail or Something in Between

At the end of a project, success criteria can be used as basis for evaluating project performance. And, if you looked at success from a single perspective, you would miss important indicators for future performance improvements. As you go through your post-project review, you can use your success criteria as a benchmark for evaluating overall project performance:

  • Were success criteria met?
  • If the answer is yes, how was that accomplished, and how can we ensure repetition?
  • If the answer is no, why did we fail to meet our success criteria?
  • Which criteria did we fail to meet?
  • Why did each failure occur?
  • Were the success criteria realistic and attainable?
  • What improvements can be made in the future to the way we plan deliverables, execute projects or utilize project staff resources?

As we have previously discussed, projects can succeed or fail on any number of levels, and can still be considered a success if overall priorities and objectives are met. But that does not mean that there is no further room for improvement.


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