How does your organisation define project success? It’s one of the first questions we should ask before initiating a new project.

When planning a project, the immediate concern is typically understanding its goal to that it’s possible to meet the expected stakeholder outcomes. In times gone by, that was achieved by delivering the project on time at or below budget.

As projects grow increasingly complex, sponsor and stakeholder engagement have become a vital yet difficult part of the project journey as organisations seek to understand how new projects will impact and benefit the business and its priorities.

All projects within a business are initiated to deliver a change resulting in the desired outcome. Project sponsors become accountable to ensure that the outcome is met and therefore typically are the people most vested in obtaining successful delivery. Project managers are responsible for delivering the project that produces the desired outcome.

The very first question of any project manager to a project sponsor then should be: “What does success look like?”

The Flag on the Hill: A Statement of Purpose

If there is one thing we often see in project failure, it’s the misalignment between what the project was expected to deliver vs what it actually delivered. The sponsor’s vision for success should be documented early into simple, measurable outcomes that ultimately establish ‘the flag on the hill’ for the project management team.

The statement of purpose provides a baseline for the project and a reference point to measure scope changes against. For example, if the change does not have the intended positive impact or prevent degradation on success, then is should not be approved.

The next step is to define project success in terms of key performance indicators, or KPIs that are specific, measurable, attainable, reliable and timely, often referred to as SMART goals. This provides the team(s) with clear metrics that they can track and report project progress against.

Defining success means aligning to the same outcome

Keeping projects on track is far better than having to recover a project, however, projects get off-track quickly when the definition of what success looks like is not clear across the stakeholder community, for example, what constitutes success in projects could have three viewpoints:

  • The project manager definition: The project is completed on time and budget to quality standards.
  • The Tech Lead’s definition: The project provides the new technology to the organisation
  • The Finance Lead’s definition: The project removes unnecessary headcount.

A team that is out of alignment can have a big impact on the definition of success, leading to volatility, confusion, and disharmony across the project teams, governance groups, and the wider stakeholder community.

The most effective method to resolve disharmony or confusion is to ensure that there is consistent alignment between the steering committee and the project team toward the project.

Benefits realisation at the project and program level

An extension of the concept of success is benefits realisation. In most cases benefits realisation completes after the project. So what responsibilities does the Project Manager have regarding benefits realisation?

Surely delivering the scope on time and budget to quality standards is success for the project manager? Are any subsequent activities to realise benefits after project delivery part of the PMs’ remit?

We would argue the Project Manager has a fiduciary duty to the sponsor to ensure that the activities and structures to realise the benefits are in place to deliver the desired outcomes. Benefits realisation is less problematic at the project level as the benefits are more self-contained and the PM is closer to them to have an influence.

Where a program is running with multiple technology and business projects, the benefits are normally carried at the program level and as a result, benefits realisation becomes even further removed from the project and less of a focus for the Project Manager. In these instances, the focus of the technology projects is normally implementing the technology solution whilst the business projects manage the change.

In this case, is it fair to state that time, cost and quality achievements are sufficient to measure project success for the technology PM? There is no easy answer here however there is a way of getting there.

Projects should stand on their own in the context of program benefits

Our view is that each project should stand on its own and deliver benefits.

In the context of a program, the benefits for the program are achieved through its component projects. If the project has clearly defined outcomes (benefits) then this can be documented and measures of success can be more easily derived.

In many cases, however, projects are reliant on business change to enable the outcomes to be realised. Whilst the change management activities may not be in scope of the project, they are a critical dependency on the project achieving its outcomes and it, therefore, goes without saying the technology project manager needs to have a view into these activities and track and report progress.

There is no point in delivering the world’s best solution if the business is not ready to adopt it – this approach results in very expensive shelfware and often deterioration in the relationship between the business and IT.

Success is the flag on the hill

Success is the flag on the hill that the project should be led against in order to create alignment across a diverse stakeholder community. Where the project itself is dependent upon outside activity to enable the benefits to be realised, the Project Manager must monitor and report against those activities in the context of their project achieving success.

As project specialists, we support clients with fit-for-purpose project delivery capability and governance.  Contact us here to find out more about how we work with your teams or call 02 9098 6300.

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...