Published here October 2018


Musings Index

The Meaning of Project Success — Translated

Recently, my friend Jonathan Norman, manager for the Major Projects Knowledge Hub at the Major Projects Association in the UK, challenged their readers to read an academic paper on the subject of project success: by Yvonne Schoper. In the email I received, he added: "This applied academic research paper is part of a collection recently published by the Open Access Journal, Project Management Research and Practice. You may be skeptical about the value of reading academic research but give it a go, you may surprise yourself." So I did — and I was, but not quite as Jonathan might have expected.

Essentially, Yvonne Schoper makes a "Plea for a more sustainable definition of project success." At first glance, as with all things associated with the political, you might interpret this as meaning "Project Success that lasts longer", but that is not the case. When a project is done, it is done, over, and success is only in the moment, or at least until all the accolades have died down.

In the Abstract of her paper, she states: "This paper aims to raise the awareness for the impact that project managers have for successful projects."[1]

What Yvonne is really doing is advocating for introducing some form of "sustainability" into the definition of project success, and placing that responsibility on the shoulders of the project manager.

And to this end she quotes a number of eminent folks and their definitions of success, but suggests that:

"The most often used definition comes from Cooke-Davies who defines project success as a measure against 'the overall objectives of the project, accomplished through the use of the project's output'."[2]

True that quote was from sixteen years ago — but the clamor has probably got worse since then. However, the real question is: Who is responsible for accomplishing the use of the project's output? Certainly not the Project Manager — unless by some chance he or she is offered a higher management position to do so. It does not seem to be clearly understood that the job of managing a project is a very different kettle of fish from managing the extraction of benefits from the project's product. For a start, that requires a very different cultural attitude, let alone the necessary training and experience for the product and its environment in question. It's like asking a team's coach to go on after the game to manage the franchise — assuming the team was successful in winning!

Yvonne goes on to quote a number of examples needing clarification such as "rotting schools and football stadiums in the rainforest, rotting bridges without road access" and the like. She adds: "The project and product lifecycle perspective should be extended to the complete recycling of the product into its original materials to enable reuse of the raw material." That is indeed a great idea, although the project life cycle and the product life cycle are two entirely different things.

But in the first place, who is responsible for constructing the project-product life span, especially with an extra fifth phase including final disposal? Again, that is not a part of the typical mandate given to the project manager unless, that is, specifically included in the project manager's charter, hopefully based on the project's business case. I have yet to see that, but it's possible in theory, though not very practical in reality for the reasons just described.

Finally, in her Outlook and Conclusion, Yvonne posits:[3]

"If all 250,000 IPMA certified project managers worldwide would agree to this new, sustainable understanding of project success and act accordingly, e.g., by refusing to manage unsustainable, unethical or resources-exploiting projects, the profession of project managers could contribute hugely to the change necessary to preserve the planet earth for future generations."

I suspect that if that wish really came to pass, most of those IPMA members, along with their teams, would soon be out of work, for lack of viable projects to work on. Widespread unemployment is not a happy sight.

I am not against a discussion of sustainability and anything practical that we can or should do about it, and there are certainly plenty of such things we all can do. But I am strongly opposed to trying to shift the responsibility on to the shoulders of the wrong target.

1. See reference at the start of this article.
2. Cooke-Davies 2002.
3. Ibid, see Outlook and Conclusion at the end of the paper.
Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page