How Do You Measure Project Success?
Over the years, I’ve written about how to start a project well, and how to close a project — two tasks that are very important. One of the benefits in doing those things well, is that it makes it possible for you to measure project success. You have to decide from the beginning what’s important. Most people are familiar with the triple constraint — cost, scope, and budget. These people are used to thinking about projects as being successful if they deliver the scope without exceeding the budget, and finish on time.
But suppose you create a project to open a new location for your fitness center. You might finish the project on schedule, within budget, and as you envisioned. But suppose the center doesn’t attract new customers? Have you succeeded? Suppose you create a software product for a client, and the client has changed his mind since you began and no longer likes the way it works?
I typically advise project teams to have project metrics to which they can reasonably be accountable. A project team cannot be held responsible on a project outcome that isn’t measurable until two years after project closure. But project teams can be held accountable for delivering a product that the client loves, even if the client changes his or her mind during project execution. (Remember that senior management may be your ultimate client, if it’s an in-house project.)
Yet we do need to have a way to measure project success. I believe we need to start looking at this from two different perspectives. In this blog, I’ll discuss those two perspectives and some considerations.
Short-term project success
When we begin a project, we need to identify, with the client, what is important. Is it scope, costs, revenue, schedule, agility, or risk management? Every client is different. Every project is different. Don’t assume you know what is important to your client. Ask questions. You may have to probe a bit to get them to think about what success looks like before the project gets started.
For example, if your project is to organize a non-profit fundraiser, you may be more interested in the dollars raised or the number of people that have a great time. Is the purpose of the event to raise big dollars or to increase awareness in a different demographic?
If your project is to renovate a building and open a new retail operation, you may be more interested in keeping costs under control or you may be more interested in the first month’s sales. If the answer is first month’s sales, your project team may need to be involved in the marketing plan.
The key is to determine what constitutes success and how the success will be measured. Find out what is important, how you will measure it, and focus on delivering a successful project. Don’t get so bogged down in the details of the project that you forget what constitutes success.
Long-term project success
Every project is undertaken to deliver something of benefit to the client (or to management). It may be a new on-boarding process for HR, a new cancer-fighting drug, a new software program, a fundraiser for a charity, or a new long-term strategic plan for a university. Depending on the project and the intended result of that hard work, the benefits may be apparent at closure, or they may not be.
For example, we will probably want to measure the benefits to the new onboarding process over a three to five-year period. It may take ten to twenty-five years to measure the success of a cancer-fighting drug, or our metric may have more to do with simply getting the drug successfully launched and approved. It depends on what management decides. There are no fixed answers. The questions aren’t formulaic.
The challenge is to decide what you want to measure, how you will do it, and who will be responsible. It will vary from organization to organization and project to project. These decisions must come from senior leadership, not the project team. You may need to pull in a consultant to guide you through the process.
Michelle MacAdam, of Oak Path Consulting, Inc., has written extensively on benefits realization management (BRM). An outside perspective could be very important. You many need a framework to help your organization work through these discussions.
Regardless of whether we are looking at the long-term or short-term, we need to plan for how we will measure project success. We need to set up our organizations to succeed by identifying the project benefits early and creating a workable strategy to measure project success.
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