The original version of this paper was first presented in Project Management World Today in the March 2000 issue. It was subsequently updated and reproduced on this web site in November 2000. This is Revision 17, March 2009.

Republished here February 2023.

PART 1 | First Principles of Project Management
Discussion - First Principles Generally | Discussion - Success Principle
Discussion - Commitment Principle | Discussion - Tetrad Trade-off Principle

Discussion - Success Principle

Issue #4: It has been suggested that the issue of success is so obvious as to be unworthy of a first principle.

However obvious and sensible the setting of project success criteria at the beginning of a project may seem, regretfully, it is not always a common practice. Without defining these success criteria, how can agreement be reached on a particular project's priorities, trade-offs, the significance of changes, and the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the project's management? For this reason, a lot of conclusions drawn from surveys and similar experiential material could be very questionable.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there have been many projects that have been "On time and within budget" but the product has not been successful, and similarly many that have not been "On time and within budget" yet by other measures the product has been very successful. Motorola's Iridium is a good example of the former while the movie Titanic is a good example of the latter.

We believe that project success is much more than just "Doing what you set out to do". It is also about whether what you are doing is in fact the right thing to do. We believe that the ultimate goal of a project, and therefore its measure of success, should be the extent to which the product produces the intended benefits and hence the satisfaction with the product on the part of the customer. As noted earlier, the assumption is that the customer is clearly identified.

As Gerald Neal points out, the reality of life on many projects is that everyone on or associated with it does not have the same aspirations and goals. As a result "the project gets pulled in many different directions ... [by] ... status, pride, power, greed ...".[28] In most cases, this may be a little exaggerated, but even at the most elementary level, the project owner will be interested in benefiting from the product while the workers on the project will be interested in benefiting from the process. This makes the definition of a project's success even more important - to provide a reference baseline for the correction of divergent progress.

So, success for a project and how it will be measured after completion does need to be defined at the beginning of the project. The most important reason is to provide an on-going basis for management decision-making during the course of the project even though the understanding of that success may mature during its course. Hence the need to continue ensuring alignment with the project's Business Case, and the project's Business Case with corporate objectives.

Discussion - First Principles Generally  Disscussion -
First Principles Generally

28. Contributed by Gerald Neal by Email dated 9/23/99.
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