Success and Failure Criteria

A project is invariably undertaken in order to further the aims of a business or organisation. The processes that occur within the project are therefore taking place, not in isolation, but within a wider business environment.

The project team members who carry out the various tasks involved must interact with a range of stakeholders who are not directly tasked with project activities, and who have their own concerns and agendas. For this reason, the criteria for project success or failure cannot be defined simply in terms of how well or how badly a project is managed and executed, or even whether or not an agreed set of deliverable is produced on time or not.

The commitment of the project team must be matched by a commitment by the client and end users in order to achieve a successful outcome. Such a commitment can only be achieved if the processes involved are well understood by the key stakeholders, which in turn is dependent on maintaining the flow of timely and accurate information. Some of the factors that contribute to project failure are listed below (although the list is not exhaustive).

The characteristics of a successful project therefore include a well-defined and well-understood set of requirements, realistic scheduling, effective channels of communication and clear reporting procedures, formal change management procedures, good leadership, and sound management of personnel and resources.

Successful projects tend to occur within an organisational culture that is willing and able to investigate and deal with problems, where the vision behind the project is shared by all of the stakeholders, and where the project manager demonstrates effective communication skills when dealing with clients and project team members. Indeed, where project leadership is concerned, communication skills take far greater precedence than technical knowledge.

When considering the criteria for success, it is easy to reduce the matter to a question to whether or not all of the project objectives have been achieved, and whether they have been delivered on time or not. These are certainly important considerations, and can be objectively assessed (assuming, of course, that the project objectives and completion date have been clearly defined in the first place).

There are perhaps some more qualitative (and subjective) success criteria that could be used, such as whether the project team members feel at the end of the process that they have delivered a quality project, whether they have a sense of achievement, or whether they feel they have been allowed to exercise autonomy and work creatively. Unfortunately such criteria cannot be precisely defined or measured, although they may be just as important in some ways as those that can. The success criteria that can be objectively evaluated are commonly linked to the objectives defined in the project's scope document and therefore tend to include:

It should probably be stated at this stage that there are no absolutes when it comes to measuring project success or failure. Even the fairly objective criteria shown above can be interpreted differently, depending on how they are interpreted and by whom. A failure to involve stakeholders during the formative stages of a project (and indeed throughout the development process) can mean that the end product is poorly received, even if it the project has achieved all of its agreed objectives. Organisations, after all, are made up of people, and people are often resistant to change. This is particularly true for end users of a product or service who have had little or no input into the process that created it.

To look at this from another point of view, consider a scenario in which a project takes significantly longer to complete than anticipated, and substantially exceeds its budget. Maybe it does not even provide all of the promised functionality or features. But if the end result is something that is user friendly and highly beneficial to the client organisation, it can hardly be said to have failed.

In contrast consider London's Millennium Dome, which was delivered on time and within budget. Unfortunately, the public did not respond to the project with anything like as much enthusiasm as expected, resulting in substantial operating losses for the owners (the New Millennium Experience Company Ltd.), who subsequently went into liquidation.

It would appear that for a project to be successful, not only must the project management process be efficient, but the objectives of the project must be fully understood and agreed upon by all of the project stakeholders. Traditionally, project management theory has identified an "iron triangle" of success criteria consisting of cost, time and quality.

More recent thinking recognises that while the cost and time elements are easily measurable, the issue of quality perhaps needs to be considered from a range of perspectives, including not only that of the organisation as a whole but that of every stakeholder. Some of the perhaps less directly quantifiable criteria for success could therefore include:

Whatever your view of what constitutes a successful project, it is vital to consider all stakeholders and the perceptions that they may have. As far as quality is concerned it, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. It is vital for the project manager to understand what stakeholders consider to be the most important criteria for success, and in order to do that he must be able to identify the different perspectives that exist within the stakeholder community.

Success criteria should be both clearly stated and achievable, and should be ranked in order of priority. The nature of the project itself may dictate the success criteria chosen and the priority assigned to them. If the project is urgent, time is a critical factor in determining success or failure and completion on schedule will be an obvious criterion for project success. If financial constraints are the main consideration, then keeping costs within budget may take priority.

It is worth pointing out at this point that success criteria are the standards by which the project will be judged, whereas success factors are the somewhat more intangible issues that will determine how well the results of the project are received, and may be considered to include the long term benefits for the organisation and user satisfaction.