Project Success?

What is project success?

Every project manager should ask themselves and all other project stakeholders: What is the definition of success for this project? It seems simple, but it is infrequently done. Without getting into the specifics of any particular type of project, a simple definition of success is:

A successful project is when the team delivered what was required and in line with expectations.
The definition is light on specifics, but very clear. How does this simple statement help define success? The traditional definitions of success tend to be what people can measure. This is why on-budget, on-time and to the customer’s satisfaction tend to be the most common KPIs determining whether a project is successful or not.

According to a recent Technology Services Industry Association project performance survey, a third of projects exceed planned hours by 5% or more, nearly half of projects do not end on schedule and 19% of customers are neutral or dissatisfied with the results. What does this tell us about the relative success of projects?

These KPIs are single, measurable criteria of success. But even if a project scored well in two of them and not one, is the project a success? Maybe. If the project succeeded at all three, is the project a success? Probably.

Going back to the simple definition provided, success is about meeting everyone’s expectations. This introduces a much broader set of success criteria such as “easier to use,” “lowered administrative time” or “access to reporting data.” These success criteria are driven more by the stakeholder’s expectations of the project, and it is these expectations that are informing their view of success.

Successfully managing expectations cuts across many aspects of the project. As you review the below list, assess how capable and mature you and your organization are at executing these practices:

  1. A well-managed people ecosystem: Every project affects many people across multiple organizations. The bigger the project, the larger the “people ecosystem.” Successful projects always define the stakeholders and impacted organizations thoroughly and broadly. Look beyond the obvious, like IT and the impacted business unit. What about HR, Legal, Finance?

    Once you define your stakeholders, realize that not all stakeholders are the same. The exercise of plotting each stakeholder or group then drives a thoughtful approach on how to communicate, manage and involve the members of the project people ecosystem
  2. A clear definition of success: Now that you have awareness and sensitivity to the people involved and impacted by the project, you need to define everyone’s individual and organizational views of success. Many make the assumption that everyone’s definition of success is “on time, on budget.”

    Typically, your team and the client sponsor are the only ones concerned with these success criteria. Everyone else is interested in the benefit it will provide them. That is their definition of success. Because of this, there will not always be one consensus definition of success and the inputs will vary. 

    So what is the call to action?

     - Explicitly ask each stakeholder about their expectations for success.
     - Document their answers.
     - Display or circulate the definition(s) of success regularly to remind all team members.
  3. Delivery based on a standardized approach: Customers have hired you not just because you are knowledgeable. If you work for a product company, you are not a “necessary evil” cost that must accompany the product. You are being paid to lead and guide the customer through a plan, a process or a series of activities to help them achieve their desired outcome. Stated simply, customers like to be led. Equally important, they like to know what to expect throughout the project.

    Leading a customer through a project requires planning and a standardized approach or methodology. In my experience, working with many clients, delivery people understand this. But this realization does not translate into consistent results. Many times, the methodology consists of some high-level phasing articulated in a nice diagram. Usually, some of the key activities and deliverables are documented. Templates are created. Upon closer inspection, however, the approaches are not standardized. Why?

     - Perception vs. reality: Practices are not as standard as believed (i.e. wide variances across geos or practices)
     - Adoption and adherence is not enforced
     - There is no central management (and repository) for the knowledge, artifacts and resources
     Insufficient investment on methodologies and knowledge as a resource

    Customers are paying for the collective wisdom of your company. That wisdom should be reflected in your methodologies. These are the wagon wheel paths that many other projects have followed to inform your project. Without standardized approaches and methods, you run the risk of not being able to lead your client.
    Worse, you will be led by your client.
  4. Project managers = effective communicators: The project can have the best processes, best technology and proven approach, but success or failure can still hinge on the softer skill of communications.

    There is no shortage of tools and processes for managing communications. But where communication breaks down is when the going gets tough--when the project is at risk of not meeting expectations, or some key elements of scope are in jeopardy. Tools cannot augment or replace the wherewithal your manager needs to manage these conversations.

    The good news is, effective communications can be taught. Communication is a soft skill that requires techniques, a lot of practice and a willingness to apply the skills in real (and many times difficult) situations. Using simple techniques and principles to improve skills, let's look at an example for communicating bad news.

    The first rule with bad news is to always be proactive. Do not let the news go unreported for long. Do not hold out for a miracle. Second is to bring solutions, not problems. Solutions are not necessarily the answer or a resolution to the issue, but it demonstrates that thought has been given to the situation and action is underway to address it. Last, engage your stakeholders. Stakeholders generally want to help. You have to ask for the help and tell them what you need. Put them to work. It tends to make the problem go away faster and you are building stronger ties with your stakeholders in the process.

    There are many other examples of situations delivery professionals face every day where good communication skills are vital. Remember, good communications skills do not come naturally for a lot of people, but the skills can be learned. How good are your project managers and leaders at communication?
  5. Influence customer expectations: There is old adage that “If something does not meet your expectations…change your expectations.” The phrase is meant to be humorous, but the real takeaway is that expectations can and do change. Likewise, customers can change their expectations. Customers can have a wide range of expectations. Therefore, how do you manage the customer to have the right expectations?

    As explained above, a customer’s criteria for success informs their expectations. By knowing what success means to each of your customer stakeholders, you generally know what drives their expectations. Often times unrealistic expectations go undetected or ignored. This is where the problem lies.

    Client expectations are not always realistic, but they are their expectations. Apply these principles to get their expectations in better alignment with the expected results of the project.

In conclusion, we all want successful projects. Even with a good plan, a good team and a good client , projects can be viewed as failures or fall short due to missed or misaligned expectations. Evaluate the five areas presented in this paper on your project or key projects in your portfolio.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I have all the right people at the table?
  • Do I know what their definition of success is?
  • Is the project following a proven approach?
  • Is my project manager or lead a strong communicator?
  • Does my customer have realistic expectations about the outcome of the project?

If you can answer “yes” to all five questions, then congratulations! Your project has an even higher probability of succeeding.

Source: Project Management Institute

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