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What Is Project Success….Really?

By Vicki Wrona, PMP:

When it comes to projects, the classic definition of project success is to deliver a project on time, on budget and within scope. However, I’m not sure that definition is adequate. I think it’s time that we revisit the classic definition of success, at least with regard to projects.

If you’re like me, you’ve seen examples of projects which were delivered on time and on budget with the scope that was defined and requested only to find that the end result is never implemented or used. If the software that was developed during an application development project sits on the shelf and never gets used but otherwise satisfies the classic definition of success, we could say that we delivered a successful failure! After all, what good is the product if the end user never uses the technology or the application that we have developed?

Let’s take a look at the Millenium Stadium built in England. This particular stadium was built for a large event and was finished on time and on budget. Everybody hailed the project as a success when the stadium opened. It held that large event and then proceeded to sit empty and unused for a few years. (Note: the stadium is now used.) Is this project a success? For a while, it did not appear to be so.

On the other hand, we may be aware of examples of projects that have been delivered late and/or over budget but are now viewed as successful. One example would be the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. When the Sydney Opera House was unveiled, the project was seen as an embarrassment and a failure. The project took numerous delays, was way over budget and had some accidents resulting in deaths associated with it. But over time, this “unsuccessful” project has become the symbol of Sydney and a tremendous success. The opera house is impressive, used and loved.

Especially with regard to IT, we really need to revisit the definition of success. Delivering on time, on budget and within scope is not good enough. Too often we de-scope a project in order to deliver it “on time” and/or “on budget”, so it doesn’t often deliver all of the requirements that were requested. That is fine if everyone agrees to the change and to having a product with decreased scope, but it happens a lot. Also, we often don’t do a proper job preparing the end-user for this new product or service. Maybe we didn’t build a product that fully satisfied their needs after all. That’s a failure on our part. Maybe we didn’t provide appropriate and proper training. Maybe we didn’t give them time to get used to the new product or process or to get over their fears of a new system. Whatever the reason, it is hard to consider these projects a success if the application we developed is not actually being used correctly or at all.

What do you think? What would you propose to use as a new definition for project success? Let me know.

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