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Measuring Project Success or Project Failure

by on April 2, 2015

I was asked to write about how to I personally define success or failure of a project. Here is my response.

People. It is all about people.

Successful projects positively impact the people involved with them. Failures negatively impact people.

The people involved with a project is a broad spectrum. It includes stakeholders, people working on the project, managers and the intended customers for the project deliverables. I call these project participants for convenience. Any term works though that recognizes the breadth of the spectrum.

It may seem idealistic to target a win-win across all project participants. It does happen. I see it all the time in my daughter’s kindergarten. Everyone wins in successful kindergarten class projects. The students, the teachers, the parents and school administration.

It also happens in successful non-profit, community projects. The beneficiaries of the project win. The volunteer participants win. The administrative organization wins as does the community.

These projects create win-wins. They also accomplish their outcomes with less friction, lower budgets and often tighter timelines than commercial projects.

Yet, when we move to commercial or large scale projects these outcomes become more difficult to attain. Friction increases, budgets grow out of proportion and timelines elongate. It becomes challenging to deliver outcomes that benefit intended customers. And rarely do all project participants win.

What happens when we move to commercial or large scale projects that make success so difficult to attain?

We lose sight of people.

We rely on process to deliver intended results. But processes don’t deliver projects, people do.

We rely on forcing mechanisms and incentive structures to motivate people to work. But forcing mechanisms are prone to misalignment. What motivates one person may actually stifle another. People are not mechanical. It is impossible to structure just the right series of incentives that move everyone exactly the way they need to move.

The urgency and importance of commercial and large scale projects drives us again and again to traditional approaches, facilitated by technology.

We are taught that processes and forcing mechanisms are shortcuts to success. They are not. The data is abundantly clear on the track record of traditional project management to deliver success.

Technology cuts both ways. It makes it easy to scale management approaches across large groups of people. It also amplifies the shortfalls of processes and forcing mechanisms.

Putting people first takes time. It takes the right environment and a different management approach. But there is a positive net gain in schedule, budget and customer satisfaction. It increases morale and team cohesion. It also enhances capacity for innovation.

This isn’t a new idea. The literature is rife with exhortations on the importance of people.

But now technology has caught up with the needs of modern projects. We can use technology to create management approaches that do put people first, that account for the non-mechanistic nature of human decision making.

As recently as the 1970’s leading anthropologists exclaimed the impossibility of automated language translation. Today it is ubiquitous with Google translate. And free.

We can now put people first in a systematic and scalable way. We can benefit from a deeper understanding of people and technology. We can advance our management approaches and consistently deliver successful projects. Putting people first.


An abbreviated copy of this article appeared in the March 2015 issue of “Connect” the magazine of the International Centre for Complex Project Management.

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