Why Every Project Needs Meaningful Success Criteria

Paul Naybour


Every project manager wants their project to be a success but the definition of success can be ambiguous with different people having a different perspective on just what constitutes success. It can sometimes be difficult to tell whether a project is successful or not, especially if those involved and affected by the outcome cannot reach agreement.

Time, cost, and quality have traditionally been used to judge whether a project has been successful but there is more to it than just these three factors.  Real success is also dependent on user satisfaction and the business benefits the completed project delivers. A project that is completed on time and on budget and to the required quality standards may not be deemed a success if it fails to deliver the expected benefits or if the client is unhappy for some reason.

So the way to deliver truly successful projects is to focus not only on the process but also on the benefits and the people. Establishing meaningful success criteria at the start of a project will increase the likelihood of the project being judged successful by everyone involved. Part of the reason why is simply that if you know what you are aiming for then you can adjust and compensate along the way to meet those criteria.

Take, for instance, a project to design a new website; what are the requirements? They may include elements such as:

·         Incorporating an improved brand identity

·         Product descriptions and prices

·         New images and videos

·         Ecommerce facility

·         Interaction with social media

A project could deliver all those things and the new website could look great but what is the benefit to the business of having spent time, money and effort on the re-design, and are the users happy with the new experience?

In this type of example project there was probably the implicit assumption that a new website would bring more customers to the business and sales would increase, but if that assumption is not explicitly identified as part of the success criteria it will not be measured. If it is not measured it doesn’t become part of the reporting process, and the real reason for re-designing the website can become lost in the drive to fulfil the requirements.

So it is essential for the project manager to identify what the stakeholders would consider a successful project. Success can, of course, mean different things to different stakeholders depending on how the final deliverable might impact them but each perspective should be represented.

Remember that success criteria are not ill-defined benefits like “increase the number of new customers”; they must always be quantifiable otherwise you cannot determine whether they have been met or not. Try to translate all criteria into something measureable. If the new project is intended to make it quicker to complete process x then translate that to a 50% reduction in time to complete process x, for example. If an aim is to increase customer numbers then define by how much and over what period, for instance, increase customer numbers by 20% over the course of 3 months.

Some criteria such as increased customer numbers or Return on Investment (ROI) can be hard to measure at the time of project delivery and may take weeks or even months to assess so make sure to include other criteria by which you can quickly judge the success of the project.

Definition of meaningful success criteria early on in a project will ensure that everyone involved will judge the project a success (or not) based on an agreed set of benchmarks that cover all perspectives; and that the project actively works towards achieving those standards of success. Without success criteria there is a real risk that a project will not deliver what was expected.


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