What Makes a Project Successful?

The Challenge of Defining Project Success

I was presenting some research recently showing how badly most IT projects do. Did you know that a government audit reckons 50% of UK Government IT projects fail or that Mckinsey estimates 80% of global IT projects don't succeed? During the presentation, someone asked me to define failure.

I reeled off my usual theoretical answer about judging a project against its time, cost, quality, scope, and business objectives. Still, later I started thinking about how difficult it is to tell a project's success.

person placing sticky notes on board

The Importance of Meeting Evolving Client Requirements

One of the first large projects I managed was a UK government website. We delivered all the initially requested features on time and within budget. On the launch day, we went to a restaurant to celebrate, and as I sat next to the client, I remember feeling pretty pleased with myself. However, that feeling didn't last long! When I started talking with her, it became clear she wasn't happy.

She was frustrated. A few weeks before launch, her team realized they wanted other things added to the initial requirements. Unfortunately, our change control process prevented them from adding these items. I tried to explain to her that this would have significantly delayed things and the importance of hitting the deadline, but it didn't help her mood.

people in conference room with lightbulb in focus

Going Beyond Quality Management: Exceeding Expectations

This experience taught me that sometimes you could hit all the initial objectives, so in theory, your project is a success, but you still have an unhappy client. It also taught me that it is tough for clients to outline their requirements at the beginning of a project. Often, when they start seeing what we are creating for them, they realize what is possible and what would be helpful.

Because of this, if we measure our success in delivering to the initial set of requirements, the project might appear successful to us, but our clients may be disappointed. Therefore, we need to work with them initially, maybe using approaches like prototyping to help them understand what is possible and needed. Only when we are sure they understand their wants and needs should we judge ourselves against delivering to them?

The Subjectivity of Success: Building Strong Client Relationships

Another area where you can theoretically succeed but still disappoint clients is quality management. In many project management approaches, quality is defined as meeting users' needs or creating products that are fit for purpose. But is a successful project one where we have just "met needs"? Would Apple be satisfied with delivering an iPhone which only was fit for purpose?

I think not! Their target is to go further than this; to delight customers, exceed expectations and create step-change functionality. Theoretically, if we deliver products that meet expectations, we might have a successful project, but our client might be disappointed. In this time of ever-increasing expectations

Conclusion: Rethinking the Definition of Project Success

So I think there are no hard and fast rules about what makes a project successful; it's all about subjective perceptions. This means it is essential to build a relationship with our clients throughout the project so we can understand how they perceive the service we are delivering to them.


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This piece was originally posted on September 11, 2019, and has been refreshed with updated styling.

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