project success

Knowing When Your Project Has Been Successful

Every project manager, every business and everyone involved in a project, whether it’s a small local project or a highly complex global project, wants it to be a success. Successful projects are good for our careers and sense of achievement and well-being – something worth celebrating. But how can you be sure your project has been a success. We’ve all been involved in projects that have come in on time, on budget and on scope (more or less) and yet had the nagging doubt that it wasn’t really as successful as it claimed to be. Maybe it’s those slightly dissatisfied end-users or a new process that’s not as slick as it could be or a new product that falls short of expectations.

If we want to be truly sure a project has been a success we need to be able to define what project success means for our project. And that means knowing what it looks like before we see it. Managing projects is not like driving to a once-familiar area and thinking “I’ll know the route when I get there” – the route needs to be planned before you start the journey.

So the success criteria need to be clearly defined and should include specifics not simply statements such as “the new process should be more efficient and cost-effective” but actual measurements of the improvement in efficiency or the cost savings in meaningful terms such as “the new process should enable a team of 6 to manage an additional 30 client accounts at no extra cost”.

But defining and measuring success is not just about being able to categorically state that the project was a success and know that statement to be true. By formally defining (and, of course, agreeing) the success criteria we are also giving the project a better chance of achieving its goals because knowing the goals allows the project manager to steer the project towards them – to adjust tasks, when necessary, if they are veering off course. Too often project tasks are defined and the goal then becomes to complete the task, without looking at how much closer this takes us to our defined success goals.

As Pinkerton (2003) states, ‘Using traditional criteria for evaluating project success is

like using the time of a single runner to determine whether or not a relay has been successful’. This is a great analogy that highlights the need to incorporate other dimensions into determining project success.

The Definition of Project Success

Firstly, it is important to recognise that there are different types of project success and a particular project may require some or all of these different types of success criteria. The major success categories are:

  • Business
  • Project Management
  • Technical

Typical time, budget and scope definitions will appear as part of these major categories but these traditional project management success criteria are insufficient and success criteria should also include other factors such as:

  • Client satisfaction
  • Achieving business goals
  • Technical quality
  • Business benefits
  • Impact on the organisation
  • Impact on the end-user

Plus a whole range of other factors depending on the type of project. A delivered project may meet the initial business requirements but true project success is also about meeting these other aspects of a project.

Organisations with a mature, well-developed approach to project management will often distinguish between the different categories of success although, clearly, a project that has not been a business success is unlikely to be rescued from failure simply because it was successful on a technical or purely PM level unless there are major mitigating factors.




The importance of both defining and measuring project success was identified way back in the 1980s by the Project Management Institute (PMI). It is essential knowledge if we want to improve our delivery of projects and realise greater value from those projects, both from a personal level as a project manager, but also to improve project management practices across an organisation.

Whilst there is a huge variety in types of project, types of organisations and types of project manager and project management styles, there are, nevertheless, common factors in every project that will contribute to success:

  • Document the success criteria at the outset
  • Obtain stakeholder agreement of the success criteria
  • Measure achievements against the success criteria on a regular basis
  • Adjust the project work on an ongoing basis to meet the success criteria




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