by Louise Worsley

What do we mean by project success?

PM Pointers

What do we mean by project success?
What do we mean by project success?

The most frequently cited definition of project failure is the failure to meet time, cost or scope targets. Interestingly – and somewhat frustrating for project managers – is that even when these three have been met, success can remain elusive. 

Success seems to depend more on the answers to questions such as: “Did the project actually solve the problem it was intended to solve?” “Does the ‘customer’ use it?’  “Was this really a valuable use of money and time?” With these questions often being answered ‘No’, many project managers feel cheated or uneasy: they feel they have no ‘say’ in these aspects of a project and are being unfairly judged. But are they?

Most researchers in the area of success and failure in projects point out that judgement about project failure is essentially a personal perception that reflects local circumstances, expectations and the degree to which they have been impacted. It is not uncommon, even within a small business, for one group to perceive a project as a failure while others see it as a success. If the aim is to improve project performance, this is less than helpful, and suggests it is important to have a definition of success that has been agreed before projects get started.

When the questions “Why are some projects perceived as failures when they actually meet time, cost and scope targets?” and “Why are some projects considered a success, even when they are late and over budget?” are asked, the rather unexciting but profoundly important answer is:
 “…if there is a high level of satisfaction concerning the project outcome among key people … the project is considered a success.”  (Cleland and King)

Or, to put it more bluntly, if the right people consider a project a success, it is a success. 

Far from being a message of despair for project managers, it specifically and valuably indicates what project managers should do to be considered successful. They simply have to make sure they know what the ‘right people’ are looking for, and to make sure the ‘right people’ know what to expect – and then deliver that.

Success factors for projects

Slevin and Pinto (early pioneers in this area) identified 10 success factors. They split the these into four groups:

  •     Communication – across, down and up
  •     Strategic – crucial for determining the proper governance of the project
  •     Tactical – fundamental to the proper execution of the project
  •     Underpinning – dealing with problems


Of the 10, one factor stands out as being very poorly done – and almost completely absent in failed projects – and that is establishing the project mission. Another, evident in so many failed projects by its absence – is adequate monitoring and control (two different things) of the important aspects of the project. The third and final key factor is a lack of timely and effective troubleshooting, which means identifying and resolving issues, not day-to-day project problems and project risks.

It is important to understand that the factors affecting success and their relative importance do vary across project implementation stages. In the early stages, strategic factors such as the ‘project mission’ predominate while in the execution stages the tactical factors such as ‘client involvement’ rise in importance. ‘Communication’ and ‘troubleshooting’ do not have a ‘season’ – they have to be attended to throughout the project.

The findings of PiCubed, of CITI, and of researchers across the world, are that in the absence of appropriate attention to these success factors, projects do fail. The message is clear:

  • If the project mission is not understood, agreed, refocused and evaluated continuously throughout the project, and management actions are not focused to deliver the mission – projects fail.
  • Planning is important, but monitoring and control are king. You cannot monitor without a plan, and it is the execution of the plan that really matters – and execution means monitoring and control.
  • Bad things happen on complex projects – plans only cater for the expected, so you either engage in troubleshooting, working closely with sponsors, or don’t do project management!

Evaluate your project for success

A Project Performance Evaluation (PPE) is a diagnostic tool derived from Slevin & Pinto’s original Project Implementation Profile. It has been developed to aid project managers and project sponsors evaluate the health of their projects against the 10 success factors proposed by Slevin and Pinto. The tool provides a 360-degree review of the project – taking into account the perspectives of the sponsor, the project manager and team members. Each perspective is important, and differences between them are likely to cause unexpected and unpredicted decision making, to the detriment of the success of the project.

This tool has been benchmarked against thousands of projects since the original research survey, with CITI (PiCubed’s United Kingdom sister company) collecting and collating data using the tool for over 20 years. It is one of many tools, techniques and approaches described, used and provided on the PiCubed’s Advanced Project Management workshop, running next in Johannesburg on 10-12 April 2013.

For additional information contact Sally at or on +27 21 7955 130.

Louise Worsley, Director of PiCubed

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Issue 29


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