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

Correlating Success with the Classification System

To test the proposition that project success varies with the type of project, a qualitative study was conducted. Sixteen projects were selected from the available database, three of them Established Technology; four Mostly Established Technology; seven High-Tech; and two Super-High-Tech. The study showed that almost all projects seemed to meet performance requirements.

Meeting resource constraints in the established technology projects was better than in the high-tech projects. In fact, overruns were almost intolerable in the established technology projects as this was perceived as critical to success. This did not mean that such projects did not suffer from overruns. Overruns in these projects were attributed to factors beyond the control of project management.

For example, this occurred in a University Construction project. The project suffered from a 20% schedule overrun due to a government-imposed restriction on the importation of construction workers. In contrast, in the high- and super-high-tech projects, overruns reached a much higher level, and in two cases almost 100%. Such overruns were always as a result of technical difficulties. They were, however, much more tolerated than in the lower technology types. Indeed, they were even perceived as most likely to happen in the super-high-tech projects.

A notable case was a new electronic and computing module. In this advanced project, the module was based on a concept that had not been tried before, as well as on several new technologies which had to be developed during the course of the project. The project took almost twice the time originally planned for, and it went through two cycles of resource planning and replanning. Yet, both management and customer representatives felt that "the price was right" and that the benefit gained from the final result justified the time and budget overruns.

The nature of other success dimensions also varied with project type. The benefits customers gained from different types of project tend to increase with the technology uncertainty. However, the risk of shortcomings, or even failure, also increases.

To illustrate, established-technology projects (Type A) use existing means and well-practiced technology as in standard construction work. Usually, there are many contractors that can do the work and competition for the work is high. What the customer is interested in is an acceptable product to be used for traditional purposes. Study examples included the building of a regional office for a large utility company, and the addition of a swimming pool to an existing resort. What the customers wanted in these cases was to have their requirements met through standard solutions at relatively minimal cost. In the case of a new university social sciences department building, the contractor's profit was marginal but the contractor did gain access to subsequent work.

Mostly-established-technology projects (Type B) provide more than the standard solution for customers. These involve some element of novelty, modifications or improvement to an existing product, or some new product in an established technological field. The study included the development of a new type of battery, the building of a special protective cabin for a heavy piece of equipment, and the building of a new semiconductor plant. In each case the project was designed to solve a customer's problem to make life easier, more safe, or more efficient. In the improvement, overhaul and reorganization of an air fleet project, the sponsor was seeking to diversify its portfolio. All the customers in this category were looking for more than just a standard solution. The solution had to be functional, meeting their needs, and provide some added benefit.

High-tech projects (Type C) usually involve the development of new products based on a collection of new technologies. Such projects provide completely new solutions to previous problems, or address new needs for new customers. The development of a new command and control system for a military vehicle, the development of a new software package, the development of a new radar, and the development of a new multiplexing fiber-optic system for a large communication network, are all examples of high-tech projects examined in the study. Customers of these projects, in striving for substantial advantages and unique solutions, were ready to accept higher risks as well as higher costs. Indeed, in improving and upgrading an existing weapon system for naval use, the contractor contemplated an initial loss in order to gain access to a unique product line. In the case of the new multiplexing fiber-optic system, its development almost lead the organization into bankruptcy. Nevertheless, these projects provided substantially increased capabilities, effectiveness or competitiveness.

Super-high-tech projects (Type D) are those designed to meet very advanced needs for which no technology or previous solution readily exists. The development of the new electronic module based on a new concept, mentioned earlier, and the development of a receiving and processing system for a hostile and complex electromagnetic environment, both fall into the super-high-tech category. Such projects are obviously the most complicated and risky of all. When these projects are successful, they provide a quantum leap in effectiveness and enormous advantages for their customers.

Table 2 summarizes some of the quantitative findings of the research for different types of project. It shows typical characteristics for each of the four types of project identified and how these relate to each of the four success categories.

Established Technology






Highly Advanced
or Exploratory

(Super Hi-Tech)

Internal Project Objectives



Overruns acceptable

Overruns most likely

to Customer
(Short term)

Standard product

Functional product with added value

Significantly improved capabilities

leap in effectiveness

(Medium term)

Reasonable profit.

Return on investment

High profits.
Market share

High, but may
come much later.
Market leader

(Long term)

Almost none

Gain additional

New product line.
New markets

Leadership in
core and future technologies

Table 2: Success Characteristics of Various Types

Figure 3 shows a conceptual relationship between the relative importance of a given success category and the type of project. It reflects the findings that for traditional technology projects, meeting project objectives of time and cost and satisfying the customer in the short to medium term are the most important considerations. At the other end of the scale, long term future opportunity plays a much larger role.

Figure 3: Success-Project Relationships (Time-based success criteria are project dependent)
Figure 3: Success-Project Relationships
(Time-based success criteria are project dependent)

Additional research is required to ascertain to what extent the complexity of the program/project management inherent in the project has on the selection and consequent success of each project type.

Project Classification System Description  Project Classification System Description

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