Project success?

The following questions are some of the questions that prompted this article:

  • How do we determine whether a project has been successful or not?
  • Is coming in on-time and on-budget a reasonable measure of success?
  • Do 70% of change projects fail?
  • Do 70% of IT projects fail?
  • Is there any relationship between project failure rates and business strategy failure rates (where the latter is purportedly anywhere between 80% and 98%)?

Let’s explore some of these questions, noting that:

  • we have not conducted any form of extensive survey
  • any such survey may have dubious results and be of little value

What is being measured?

It is important to explore and establish clarity about what we are seeking to measure.  Is success about:

  • the project activity?
  • the project deliverables (or output)?
  • the project outcomes?

Many articles and organisations seem to focus on measures such as project cost and timeframe (on-budget and on-schedule).  These are simply measures of project activity, and such measures prompt some interesting questions:

  • If a project exceeds budget, is that a good or a bad thing?
  • If a project exceeds budget, does this indicate poor project execution or poor project planning?
  • Is it worth making the effort to “deliver on budget”?
  • If a project was under-estimated and is delivered on budget, what quantity or quality of output has been forgone?

Project Model

The following model can be used to help understand the different measurements that can be used to assess programs and projects.


A project takes inputs and delivers outputs which are used by the customer to achieve outcomes.  The project will proceed within an environment and be subject to appropriate governance.

Project measures fall into three broad categories:

  • Inputs
  • Outputs
  • Outcomes

When we measure costs and time, we are measuring inputs.  This tells us nothing about the quantity, quality, utility or value of the outputs.

When we measure products and deliverables, we are measuring outputs.  This tells us nothing about the utility or value of the outputs ie. the benefits and outcomes realised from using the outputs.


So, when we report that a project has failed because it exceeded budget and/or schedule, this is simply reporting on the quality of our estimates and on our management of inputs and use of resources.

Projects are undertaken to achieve outcomes.  Project success needs to be measured in terms of expected and unexpected outcomes that are realised.

When we start projects, we identify outputs and outcomes, and explore:

  • what constitutes success?
  • how would we recognise success?

These are the measures that we need to use, not at project completion, but some time after completion to allow time for the customer to start making effective use of what we have delivered.  Then we can evaluate the degree to which we have been successful.

Next time

… you hear about a project failure, take a closer look at what is being measured and decide whether the “real success” of the project is being measured or not

… you hear someone challenging myths about project failure, take a closer look at what is being measured and what they are proposing as alternate measures

… you are commencing a project, take the time to explore how you will determine whether:

  • you have adequately defined your targets
  • how realistic your targets are
  • you have a clear baseline against which to measure progress towards your targets

Then you will have a better basis for measuring project success.


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