Aaron J. Shenhar, Professor of Technology Management and James J. Renier Visiting Chair, Center for the Development of Technological Leadership, University of Minnesota, MN and R. Max Wideman

A paper presented to the Southern Alberta Chapter, Project Management Institute, Symposium "Creating Canadian Advantage through Project Management", Calgary, May 1996

Introduction | Success | Scope | Dimensions
Correlation | Classification | Correlating Success | Conclusions


The research confirms that project success is a multi-dimensional concept. It cannot be assessed based on a single, or even two dimensional measure. A project may provide an efficient solution to the customer's requirements, yet be considered a failure by the performing organization in terms of business success. Similarly, some projects seem successful in the short-term, but may turn out to be less-successful in the longer run, and vice versa. In some cases, a long time must pass before the original expectations can really be met and success evaluated.

The research revealed four primary categories of project success. These are:

  1. Internal Project Objectives (efficiency during the project);
  2. Benefit to Customer (effectiveness in the short term);
  3. Current Contribution (in the medium term); and
  4. Future Opportunity (in the long term).

The research also showed some correlation between these term-based primary success criteria and particular types of project. To make this assessment, available project data was classified into four project types, namely:

Type A - Established Technology;
Type B - Mostly Established Technology;
Type C - Advanced Technology; and
Type D - Highly Advanced Technology

When viewed in this light, it was observed that the relative importance of the different categories of success varied with technological uncertainty, i.e. the project type. Specifically, the importance of meeting time and budget constraints is reduced with increasing uncertainty, while the impact the project has on the customer increases when moving from established technology to projects of higher technology, i.e. those of higher uncertainty.

It is suggested that the four primary categories of project success, the four project types and, potentially, the three levels of project management complexity, provide a valuable framework for developing Principal Success Criteria. These success criteria should be agreed upon by the project's stakeholders at the time of project formulation, bearing in mind the type of project in question. Such criteria will provide substantive and appropriate guidance in the further formulation of the project. They will also provide a positive reference baseline for the inevitable project management trade-off decisions required during the course of the project process and a baseline for post-project review. Therefore, the following should become an established project management practice:

As part of every project's front-end planning, and incorporated into its documentation, stakeholder agreement should be reached on the project's principal (and measurable) success criteria having regard to its project type.

© 1996, 2002


Wideman has subsequently labeled these principal success criteria as "Key Success Indicators" - see the PM Glossary for a full definition.

Correlating Success with the Classification System  Correlating Success with the Classification System

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