Aaron J. Shenhar, Institute Professor of Management, Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ and R. Max Wideman

The original of this paper first published on the PMForum web site, September, 2000. (Updated presentation, April, 2002.) Presented here as the fifth in a series linking project type through management style to project success.

Published here April, 2002.

Introduction | Project Management | Success | Nature | Content
Project Work | Style | Types of Leader | All Together | Conclusions

Project Success

Since the ultimate objective of project management is to be "successful", we should first deal with the issue of "success". What really constitutes "project success"? From a project process perspective, the classic response is being "On time, within budget and meeting requirements." However, from a product perspective, a successful project is clearly one in which the "customer" ends up satisfied.

The former criteria have exercised project managers for decades, but once a particular project is completed, the results in terms of the parameters described are merely history. In contrast, the success of the product will continue to be an issue for its remaining useful product life. Clearly, "project product success" eventually transcends "project process success".

Indeed, there have been many cases of failure to meet process success, notably in the information technology field, yet the product has proved to be very successful. Similarly, but regretfully, vice versa. Optimum success is obtained when both success dimensions are achieved simultaneously.

But product success is not so readily identified. In 1988 Pinto and Slevin concluded from their research work that "Project success is a complex and often illusory construct, but nonetheless, it is of crucial importance to effective project implementation," and, "project success is suggested to have two major components: issues dealing with the project itself and issues dealing with the client." In addition, Pinto and Slevin stressed "... the necessity of developing an adequate program in terms of knowing when to determine project success" (emphasis added.) [2]

In a 1997 study, Shenhar, Dvir and Levy developed a universal multidimensional framework for the assessment of project success.[3] In this view, project success is seen as a strategic management concept where project efforts must be aligned with the strategic long-term goals of the same organization that the product of the project is intended to serve. The intent is to establish appropriate expectations of both the receiving management and the project team prior to project initiation. These expectations then provide a baseline for both the decision to launch project execution and the inevitable trade-off decisions that will be required of the project's management during this period. Surprisingly, a documented baseline of measurable success criteria, or "Key Success Indicators" (KSIs) is frequently missing from the planning of most projects.

The Shenhar, Dvir and Levy study revealed four primary categories as seen at project completion:

  • Project Efficiency - Internal Project Objectives such as meeting time and budget goals.
  • Impact on the Customer - Immediate and long-term benefit to the customer
  • Direct and Business Success - Direct contribution to the organization (usually not observable until the medium term), and
  • Preparing the Future - Future opportunity (e.g. competitiveness or technical advantage typically expected in the long term. )

Each of these four categories is translated into measurable criteria as shown in Table 1.

Success Category

Measurable Key Success Indicators

Project Efficiency


- Meeting schedule
- Completing within budget
- Other resource constraints met

Impact of the

(Short term)

- Meeting functional performance
- Meeting technical specifications & standards
- Favorable impact on customer, customer's gain
- Fulfilling customer's needs
- Solving customer's problem
- Customer is using product
- Customer expresses satisfaction

Business and Direct Success
(Medium term)

- Immediate business/commercial recognition
- Immediate revenue & profits enhanced
- Larger market share generated

Preparing for the Future
(Long term)

- Will create new opportunities for the future
- Will position customer competitively
- Will create new market
- Will assist in developing new technology
- Will add/has added capabilities & competencies

Table 1: Primary Success Categories and Measurable Success Indicators

It will be noted from these primary categories that time since project completion is a factor in the assessments and it is not difficult to infer that the perception of project success may change with time. If the principal focus of a project is to create future opportunity (fourth category), then such a project is unlikely to be viewed as a success until those opportunities actually come to fruition. This relationship is demonstrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Project Success Categories Vary with Time

Figure 1: Project Success Categories Vary with Time

Much of the project management literature refers to "Critical Success Factors" or "CSFs". However, such factors should be distinguished from the success indicator measures listed above, because they are management environment variables and not outcomes. CSFs may be defined as follows:

"Those managerial factors, listed in order of importance, that when present in the project's environment are most conducive to the achievement of a successful project."
Examples include: Project objectives aligned with corporate mission; top management support; a culture of open communication"[4] and so on.

Research has shown that attention to these factors will improve the probability of project success, and reduce the chances of failure, but they do not drive the direction and decision-making on the project.

Project and Project Management  Project and Project Management

2. Pinto, Jeffrey K., and Dennis P. Slevin, Project Success: Definitions and Measurement Techniques, Project Management Journal, vol. xix, No.1, Project Management Institute, Upper Darby, PA, 1988, pp. 70-71.
3. A.J. Shenhar, D. Dvir, and O. Levy: "Mapping the Dimensions of Project Success." Project Management Journal. Vol.28, No.2, pp.5-13, June 1997.
4. Wideman Comparative Glossary of Common Project Management Terms v.3.0 at http://www.maxwideman.com
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