Successful Project. What does it mean?

‘Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value’

Albert Einstein.

Project Success

The ultimate goal of project management is that the project can be considered successful. But are we clear that it is a successful project?

Defining «successful project» might seem simple. In contrast, this concept has been the subject of study, debate and research for as many years as project management has been a discipline.

There are three essential elements to understanding the concept of a successful project itself: its definition, the criteria used to determine success, and the factors that can influence the success of the project.

In this post I will try to explain the different proposals to define a successful project. In the next two I will talk about the criteria and critical factors that determine the success of the project.

What has made me reflect on what a successful project is is the following thinking:

«The Sydney Opera House project is a typical example of how different stakeholders have different perspectives of a project. The Opera house (Thomsett, 2002) took 10 times more of the original time to finish and its cost went 16 times over budget. But the final impact the Opera House created was so immense it simply made people overlook the project’s original unmet goals. The project was a huge hit for the general public even though it was considered as a failure in the view of project management. On the contrary, the construction of the Millennium Dome in London was a project that was completed on time and on budget but the British public considered it a failure because it didn’t deliver the glamour that it was originally expected to make (Cammack, 2005)»

It is evident that taking into account only the golden triangle (cost, time and scope) to evaluate the success of a project can be clearly insufficient. Therefore, I think it is interesting to analyze other definitions of successful projects and the different points of view of researchers and practitioners that have been formulated in the last four decades.

According to Parfitt and Sanvido (1993)[1], the definition of project success is different for each participant, but it is based on the basic concept of overall achievement of project goals and expectations.

These goals and expectations may include technical, financial, educational, social, and professional issues etc. Belout (1998)[2] pointed out that a synonym for success is effectiveness: the degree of achievement of objectives.

A project can only be successful if the success criteria were defined upfront. This means tan we have to agree the success criteria with all the stakeholders before you start, (and repeatedly at configuration review points throughout the project). So, when we are talking about project success it is about an overall consensus.

The attitudes on project success have developed gradually over the years from simple explanations that were restricted to the implementation phase of the project life cycle to explanations that reflect gratitude of success over the whole project and product life cycle (Jugdev and Muller, 2005)[3].

To achieve the best outcome for the project, we need to do what is best for the project overall, and not isolated parts of the project. That means we need to balance the functionality against the feasibility of the design, and both against cost and time to deliver what is best value for the sponsor.

Another definition with a high level of agreement is the given by Baker, Murphy and Fisher (1988)[4] that project success is a subject of perception and it is considered to be an overall success if the project meets requirements such as technical performance specifications, mission to be performed. It also needs a high degree of satisfaction about the project results among the key people of the project team and the key users of the project effort.

(Shenhar et al., 1996)[5] believes that project success is time dependent and therefore it should be assessed with time taken into consideration. The reason behind ‘time dependency’ is based on the fact that project success varies with time. He illustrated four time dependent groups as mentioned below.

  • Internal project objectives – efficiency during the project
  • Benefit to customer – effectiveness in the short term
  • Direct contribution – assessed in the medium term
  • Future opportunity – assessed in the long term

Working on the time-line component of the project success, Shenhar, Dvir and Levy (1997)[6] constructed a universal multidimensional framework that would help in assessing project success and they identified the next measurable criteria.

  1. Internal Project Efficiency (Pre-completion)
    1. Meeting schedule
    2. Completing within budget
    3. Other resource constraints met
  2. Impact of the Customer (Short term)
    1. Meeting functional performance
    2. Meeting technical specifications & standards
    3. Favorable impact on customer, customer’s gain
    4. Fulfilling customer’s needs
    5. Solving customer’s problem
    6. Customer is using product
    7. Customer expresses satisfaction
  3. Business and Direct Success (Medium term)
    1. Immediate business/commercial recognition
    2. Immediate revenue & profits enhanced
    3. Larger market share generated
  4. Preparing for the Future (Long term)
    1. Will create new opportunities for the future
    2. Will position customer competitively
    3. Will create new market
    4. Will assist in developing new technology

Following with the time-line and possible project success assessment, Pinto and Slevin (1988)[7] proposed a systematic approach to the assessment of success over the time. They found out that is absolutely necessary to establish a well-balance moment for the assessment.

The reason is that it is necessary to transfer the outputs /deliverables to the client in order to know if the project is up, functional and it generates the expected benefits (impact) for the organization.  On the other hand, it is not possible to wait so long because the possibility that other random factors make no possible to assess the project success.

Considering all these facts, it is clear that there are two variables that determine enormously the definition of a successful project: who carries out the definition and when the success of the project has to be evaluated. Optimal is that a consensus exists in the early stages of the project among all stakeholders. This consensus should determine what criteria determine the success of the project and when these criteria should be measured (key performance indicators).

Although referring to programmes (as a group of projects), in the construction sector and formulated by construction companies, I find the proposal made by Hongyan et al.[8]

“The model consists of four circles representing the four dimensions of program success ordered based on importance determined by the research. The inner circle represents the most important dimension of organizational strategic goals. The second circle represents the construction program performance dimension. The third circle represents the social harmony dimension, and the fourth circle represents the project stakeholders’ satisfaction dimension. The model also lists the success criteria in each dimension.” (See the attached figure)

In the next posts I will talk about criteria for determining the success of a project and the critical factors that determine the success of the project.

[1] Parfitt, M. K., and Sanvido, V. E. (1993), “Checklist of critical success factors for building projects”, Journal of Management in Engineering, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 243-249.

[2] Belout, A. (1998), “Effects of human resource management on project effectiveness and success: toward a new conceptual framework”, International Journal of Project Management, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 21-26.

[3]  Jugdev, K., & Müller, R. (2005). A Retrospective look at our Evolving Understanding of Project Success. Project Management Journal, 36(4), 19–31.

[4] Baker, Bruce & Murphy, David & Fisher, Dalmar. (2008). Factors Affecting Project Success. Project Management Handbook. 10.1002/9780470172353.ch35

[5] Shenhar, A. J., Renier, J. J., & Wideman, M. (1996). Improving pm: Linking success criteria to project

type. A Paper presented to the Southern Alberta Chapter, PMI, Symposium “Creating Canadian Advantage through Project Management”. Calgary.

[6] Shenhar, A., Levy, O., & Dvir, D. (1997). Mapping the dimensions of project success. Project Management Journal, 28(2), 5–13

[7] Pinto, J.K. and Slevin, D.P., 1988. Project success: definitions and measurement techniques.Project management journal, 19 (3), 67–73.

[8] Yan, Hongyan & Elzarka, Hazem & Gao, Ce & Zhang, Feilian & Tang, Wenbin. (2019). Critical Success Criteria for Programs in China: Construction Companies’ Perspectives. Journal of Management in Engineering. 35. 04018048. 10.1061/(ASCE)ME.1943-5479.0000659.

Thomsett, R (2002) Radical project management. Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall PTR, 2002. ISBN: 0130094862.

Cammack ( 2005) Principles of Project Management – 1st session, MSc in Project Management, Lancaster University