Defining project success

Paul Naybour

Feeling like you’ve done a great job on a project is not quite enough. In order for a project to be officially a success, it must meet a set of ‘success criteria’ as set out by the project stakeholders and manager. In order for a project to be proven a success, these criteria must be trackable and measurable, otherwise it would be impossible to answer the question of whether you have delivered the desired benefits through the efforts of your project.

Defining success criteria

Success criteria usually fall under two distinct headings:

  1. Project success: These are the things that relate to the running of the project itself, including the various processes, items that need signing off, management etc. These markers of success are intrinsically linked with the management itself of the project, and help to focus attention on the business side of project management.
  2. Deliverable success: These are the things that the project delivers, such as physical outcomes, achievements and reach. These success markers are more related to the rationale and business case behind doing the project in the first place. These relate to the achievements of the project directly, and will be of most interest to the project sponsor.

To start organising your success criteria, make a list of the project outcomes and markers of success, and start to place these under the two headings defined above.

Tracking success

The project related success criteria are not generally tracked over time, as they are specifically related to actions contained within the project brief. When the project comes to an end, you should easily be able to say whether these have been met and to what extent. For this reason, it is not necessary to generate a baseline of current performance prior to starting the project.
Project deliverables on the other hand, can be highly dependent on comparisons with ‘business as usual’. For this reason, it is a good idea to establish a baseline of how things are working right now, and then to reassess the situation after your project has come to an end, thereby giving you an indicator of the effectiveness of the project overall.
As an example, an IT project that takes place in a customer contact centre may result in 95% of customers now being called back within 20 minutes. Whilst this sounds very good, if you do not know what the situation was prior to implementing the project, how can you tell if it is an improvement at all? If, beforehand, 99% of customers were being called back in 10 minutes, that throws a very different light on your project’s impact.

Measuring success

There are two main ways to measure project success criteria. These are:

  • Discrete measurement: A simple yes / no answer or a tick in a box. For example, was the project delivered on time?
  • Continuous: These measurements are a sliding scale and will usually be a number, a percentage or some other measurement. For example, what percent of customers are now having their calls answered within 3 minutes?

Be aware that many continuous measurements can be translated quite easily into discrete measurements, particularly if they are associated with a target. For example, if the target is that 80% of customers should have their calls answered within 3 minutes, have we met that target (yes or no).
By taking the time to define and agree success criteria with your client, you will be able to work towards a definite end to the project, and a conclusion that everyone is happy with.

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