What measure success?

Written by Richard Greenall | 3P Practice Lead | richard.g@pmsolutionsaustralia.com.au
04 May 2019

I have been involved in a lot of projects, good and bad over the years, but how do you measure success?

The old mantra of “on-time and on-budget” really does not seem fit for purpose anymore.  The most effective way to achieve”on-time and on-budget” is to correctly price uncertainty into the initial estimate.  There are a number of proven techniques available to do this (i.e.: 3-point estimation), however, there is little business interest in adopting these improvements, for fear of scaring off the investor.

It seems interesting that project approvals are usually subject to a positive business case however the veracity of a business case is rarely challenged.  Business cases are created too early in the lifecycle, often when there is a high-level of uncertainty and, in my experience, are not properly adjusted through the life of the project.

So are we looking at the right success measures?

“On-time and on-budget” completely ignores the business value and customer dimensions.  Our new economy values factors like “time-to-market”, “market influence” and “customer sentiment”, as more important investment objectives than low capital cost (probably reflecting relatively cheap access to capital over the last two decades).

Business cases often make the poorest of all baseline artefacts for measuring project success.  In many ways investment approval based on a business case becomes a victim of its own design.

We should consider that measuring success is intrinsic and multi-dimensional for projects, as it is in life?   Can a project be considered successful if it delivers a great business outcome, but is over-budget and six months late? Absolutely.  Can a project be successful if it is delivered within constraints but the customer is alienated? Absolutely not.   Could project failure open new doors by clarifying business strategy and delivering a higher organisational capability for future projects?

The bottom line is that no matter what is in the project’s baseline documentation, success measures are ultimately determined by key project stakeholders, at the point in time they are asked.  Measures can be strategic, parochial, erudite, empirical or arbitrary and they all evolve over time.  They should not be ignored.  Organisations should consider how best to include these measures in project governance and reporting for better project success.