Defining Project Success In Three Easy Steps

This article focuses on the framework of project management. Just what are the components that go into building a successful project? How are we defining project success? Here are a few answers to these questions:

  1. On time. The product is delivered according to schedule. Some projects are essentially worthless if they aren’t on time. In the mid-1990s, for example, Internet products that were slow in getting to the market found their market share already taken by the early arrivals.
  2. On budget. The project meets forecasted cost estimates. Projects are investments, and those that run over budget can end up costing the organization more than they bring in.
  3. High quality. The product must be of a high quality. Quality is often difficult to define. According to Philip Crosby, quality is “conformance to requirements. ” In the project management context, quality refers to the outcome of the project. This outcome has two components:
    • Functionality What the product is supposed to do. How fast will it go? How many people will it carry?
    • Performance. How well the functionality works. Software can have all the right features, but if the features don’t work, it is considered poor quality.

Both functionality and performance can and should be specified early in the project. How they are specified will depend on what’s being built or delivered. Process requirements for a hospital re-engineering project, for instance, will be documented differently than requirements for a new model of a commercial aircraft.

Defining Project Success Through the Cost-Schedule-Quality Equilibrium

Cost, schedule, and quality are the three primary variables in defining project success. Change one or more of these variables, and the ones remaining will also be changed. For example, if the amounts of time and money available for a project are reduced, this will almost certainly limit the quality of the product.

Similarly, to deliver the same quality in a shorter period will cost more. Your challenge, as a project manager, is to balance these variables to create the optimal cost-schedule-quality equilibrium.

Managing Expectations

Unfortunately, delivering a project on time, on budget, with high quality doesn’t always mean you are successful. Why not? Because defining project success based on your definition of the cost-schedule-quality equilibrium may not have been the same as your customer’s or manager’s definition.

Even if their expectations of cost and speed are unrealistic, nevertheless, they are the final judges of your project, and in their eyes it may be late, over budget, or poor quality.

This may seem unfair, but it does happen. This kind of disagreement, however, is preventable. Recognizing that our project’s success is defined by the perceptions of others is a powerful incentive to make sure that all parties involved in the project agree on the basics. This leads us to a new success formula for project managers:

  1. Set realistic expectations about the cost-schedule-quality equilibrium with all the project’s stakeholders.
  2. Manage expectations throughout the project. If the equilibrium changes, make sure everybody knows and accepts the new equilibrium.
  3. Deliver the promised product, on time, within budget.

The Ultimate Challenge: No Damage

In an environment where the focus is delivering high quality on time and under budget, project managers can be tempted to meet impossible goals by sacrificing the people on the team. It happens in every industry, and always for the same reason: meeting the project goals outweighs the needs of the individual team members. And this attitude isn’t reserved just for the project team; vendors and even customers are often put through the wringer to satisfy the project goals. But asking people to give 120 percent, project after project, just doesn’t work. They get worn out, demoralized, and just plain angry.

The ultimate challenge for project managers is to meet the cost, schedule, and quality goals of the project without damage to the people. That means the project ends with high morale, great relationships with customers, and vendors that can’t wait to work with you on the next project.

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