This Guest paper was submitted for publication, August 7, 2021.
It is copyright to Henrico Dolfing © 2021.
Published here September 2021.

Editor's Note | When Is a Project a Success? 
Project Inputs, Activities, Outputs, Outcomes, Impact and Results
The Three Levels of Project Success | The Project Success Model
What Exactly Are Capabilities, Then? | PART 2

The Project Success Model

All models are wrong, but some are useful. — George Box, statistician

The Project Success Model™ is a so-called conceptual model. Where a mental model captures ideas in a problem domain, a conceptual model represents "concepts" and relationships between them.

A conceptual model in the field of computer science is also known as a domain model. The aim of a conceptual model is to express the meaning of terms and concepts used by domain experts to discuss the problem and to find the correct relationships between different concepts.

The Project Success Model™ contains five concepts (or steps). These concepts and the relationship between them can be understood as a reinforcing cascade, with the choices at the top of the cascade setting the context for the choices below, and choices at the bottom influencing and refining the choices above.

  1. Define the desired business outcome
  2. Define the problem
  3. Define the scope (project completion)
  4. Define project delivery success
  5. Define product/service success

The diagram below shows a visual path for these steps and how they interrelate.

Figure 1

Although it is often easiest to start by defining the desired business outcome, there are no restrictions as to where to begin. What is most important is that you go through multiple iterations-to refine your definition of project success until it is stable, clear, and feasible on all three levels. Following this overview, let's take a deeper look at each step.

Defining the Desired Business Outcome

Of all the things I've done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them toward a certain goal. — Walt Disney

Business success results from defining how a new product or service will create value for the organization, measured in both financial and strategic terms, such as:

  • Financial value contribution (e.g., increased turnover, increased profits, or decreased costs)
  • Competitive advantage (e.g., winning a share of the market or a technological advantage)
  • New markets (e.g., reaching a new location or rolling out a new product)

The moment you have defined a desired business outcome, you have created a new problem to solve.

Defining the Problem

We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem. — Russell L. Ackoff

Before you can solve a problem, you need to know exactly what the problem is, and you should put a significant amount of thinking and resources into understanding it. And because today's problems are so complex, you should know that they cannot be solved by being broken down into specific components.

Russell Ackoff — an American organizational theorist, professor, and researcher in the field of systems thinking and management science — offered one of the most compelling metaphors for complex problems I have encountered to date. He referred to them as "messes." How many times have you heard or have uttered the phrase "this project is a mess" yourself? For me, the number is too high to count.

With respect to management science, Ackoff defined a "mess" forty years ago as follows:

"Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and chairs."

According to Ackoff, dialogue is the only way to achieve a shared understanding of a problem. Unfortunately, in this day and age, where the hours are equated with cash and simplicity reigns supreme, time spent on understanding problems is often viewed as time wasted.

Given one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding the solution. — Albert Einstein

Management demands action, not talk and collaborative analysis. The kind of meetings that involve debate and discussion are especially seen as "just talk." This is understandable considering the number of meaningless meetings most people experience, but I believe debate and discussion are necessary to create a shared understanding of a problem. While I would not use the same time split as Einstein (in the quote above), that is only because the problems I work on do not involve saving the world.

It's so much easier to suggest solutions when you don't know too much about the problem. — Malcolm Forbes

This brings us to a critical juncture: What happens if you don't understand the problem? The "solutions" that are generated will create new problems and without any guarantee that they will even touch upon the existing issue they are meant to solve.

Understanding the problem is the first step toward any kind of problem-solving

Defining Done

A project is complete when it starts working for you, rather than you working for it. — Scott Allen

Project failure starts when we can't tell what "done" looks like in any meaningful way. Without some agreement on our vision of "done," we'll never recognize it when it arrives, except when we've run out of time or money or both.

We've all seen the project failure numbers before. We've all been told how bad things are. We've all heard that large numbers of projects fail because of poor planning or poor project management. Whether this is true or not, how can we increase the probability of our own project's success?

First, we must recognize that without a clear and concise description of done, the only measures of progress are the passage of time, consumption of resources, and production of technical features. These measures of progress fail to describe what business capabilities our project needs to produce or what mission we are trying to accomplish.

Capabilities drive requirements. Therefore, without first identifying the needed capabilities, we cannot deliver a successful project, and we will end up a statistic like all the other failed projects. Note that not every project needs to deliver new capabilities. Improving existing capabilities is a very good reason to do a project.

The Three Levels of Project Success  The Three Levels of Project Success

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