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.


Novel ideas?


A colleague and I convened a “kick off” meeting yesterday. When we left the meeting and travelled back to the city, she said something like “Another successful novel idea!”

Not being sure what novel idea she had in her mind, I asked “Which one?”

She said, “Getting people together so that they can talk to each other”.

And I said, “Ahhh … yes … one of several novel ideas that you just pursued:

  1. Getting people together so that they can talk
  2. Asking people to do things
  3. Giving people information necessary for them to do the task you want them to do
  4. Letting people do their job”

And then we talked about the novelty of these ideas. How is it that they seem so novel? How is it that people don’t do these things so often that we have cause to feel that the idea of doing so is something new, novel, innovative, earth-shattering …

How is it that this could be?

I suggested to my colleague that she should write a book on this topic as it would clearly be a best seller and provide a lasting income beyond any retirement that she might contemplate.

I wonder whether it would be a best seller?

Change exhaustion?

A few years ago, I attended an “all staff” meeting for a business unit of 60 people within a large organisation. It was a “kick-off” event at the beginning of the year, outlining for staff the range of activities and developments that would be pursued during the year. It followed a busy preceding year, with lots of change and lots of pleasing outcomes (from a management perspective).

The Director said to the staff something along the following lines …

If you are thinking that last year was busy and this year we are going to slow down, I am sorry to disappoint you. Last year represents the “new normal”. You will need to “get used to this” and find ways to operate successfully and satisfyingly in this new mode of operation.

In one sense, this is “no surprise”. We have all heard (and therefore know, understand and accept!!) that the pace of change is increasing and that it is not going to stop. Yet, sometimes things are changing so much, we feel like we want the world to stop, so that we can take a breath and steady ourselves (or perhaps steel ourselves) for what is inevitably going to come.

So, how do we cope with the change that is occurring around us, with the “disruption” to our lives and the ways in which we are accustomed to living, working, learning and playing? How do we go about making changes so that we are not “left behind”, possibly without a job or without our traditional role or with a diminishing pipeline of clients as they no longer value what we offer?

One of the ways is to undergo a transformation … so what is different about changing versus transforming?

A transformation entails operating with a different set of assumptions.

Whilst we continue to assume the world is operating in the manner to which we have become accustomed, then we may experience the world as a spiral of diminishing circles, leading to disaster. We may see our circumstances in negative, disappointing and threatening terms.

Often, in these circumstances, it is possible to see the world and our circumstances through a different lens, a little bit like turning a kaleidoscope and seeing things in completely different ways. Sometimes this requires help from others, simply to enable us to appreciate that there is a radically different way of seeing things. You have probably heard people say …

  • There are no problems, there are only challenges …
  • There are no problems, there are simply opportunities …
  • Some people see a glass half-full and others see a glass half-empty

These expressions are all about seeing things differently.

One of the great capacities that humankind has is to be able to consider situations in the following way:

  • understanding the elements that constitute the means versus the ends
  • conceive of scenarios where the ends remain the same but the means are different
  • conceive of other scenarios where the means remain the same but the ends are different

The latter allows us to explore new ways in which our own capabilities, built around our knowledge, skills and experience can be used to achieve different goals and outcomes. This is the manner in which individuals and enterprises can envisage new ways of seeing things and new ways of operating which take advantage of their personal strengths and abilities. Sometimes the new opportunities require some attention to some weaknesses in order to work more effectively in the new environment, and this presents us with new manageable changes, learning and improving, so that we can pursue new goals and new horizons.

In this way, we can turn a frustrating and demoralising situation into one which offers excitement and inspiration, enabling us to move forward with a new spring in our step, ready to meet the new challenges facing us, and with a new sense of purpose and capacity to contribute to shaping our world of work and to supporting those around us whom we love and care for.

Turning the kaleidscope may be all that is required to change exhaustion into exhilaration …

Becoming more brain and systems savvy … includes learning different ways to turn the kaleidoscope