Success can’t be measured until the journey is at an end. But are there any signs that can show likelihood of success?
The following is an essay I wrote in 2017 for a Project Management paper I was studying as part of my Masters in Management. In it I explore four common criteria of project success, finding that it is a subjective measure which is largely dependent on the viewpoint from which the project is being measured. I also find that it is critical that the end user has an involvement in all facets of the project – from planning right through to delivery.
In the contemporary age projects are common across all industries, with larger organisations often simultaneously running multiple projects ranging from software development to building relocations. While the actual output will differ amongst projects there is one common factor – an expectation that the project will be successful. Given the variety of different projects available out there is it possible that several factors within the project itself, such as structure, planning, leadership, and communication, can determine success?
What success looks like will differ between projects, stakeholder groups, and organisations. In trying to define project success, de Wit (1988) states that project management literature often views a project as successful if it is delivered on time, on budget, and to the specifications agreed at the commencement. This is supported by Shenhar, Dvir, Levy, & Maltz (2001) who also argue that using these criteria alone could result in an incomplete or incorrect assessment as a project which is found to have delivered against them may not actually meet any customer needs – a factor which will be further explored in this essay. Literature into the subject of project success suggests plenty of other factors which should be used, depending on the type, scale, or size of a project – Freeman and Beale (as cited in Shenhar, et al., 2001) suggest that employee satisfaction, stock market performance, and even technical competence could be used as success measures by different stakeholder groups. Shenhar, et al. (2001) also find that project success should not be a one size fits all model, with different project types being assessed differently, especially as a project can viewed as a success if it perceived as being able to deliver a future benefit.
Regardless of what is used to measure the success of a project a common trend is evident – project success is largely a perception taken from a specific viewpoint. Given this, a project can be simultaneously viewed as both a success and a failure.
While there are several measures which could be used to define project success, this essay aims to complete a critical assessment of four key criteria commonly used; plan development as part of project commencement; the Iron Triangle of project success; team structure and the impact of the project manager; and stakeholder satisfaction of the end deliverable. These criteria have been chosen as they align to three common areas of a project lifecycle – plan, build, and deliver. The essay will draw upon ideas presented within a range of journal articles.
Initial planning is a central element of modern project management as it “reduces uncertainty and increases the likelihood of project success” (Dvir, Raz, & Shenhar, 2003, p. 94). As the first stage of project management planning is the time at which functional and technical requirements are defined; activities, processes, and resources are identified; and project timeframes and budget are drawn up. Dvir, et al. (2003) state that this can lead to a common view of project managers that if they create a solid project plan and follow it then success will ensue.
However, as the planning phase is traditionally done in the early stages of project many, such as Andersen (1996), feel that it is highly unlikely that all the activities which need to be carried out to complete a project successfully can be identified at such an early state, which can have an impact on eventual costs, timeframes, and deliverables. In addition to this, Bart (as cited in Dvir, et al. 2003) feels that traditional upfront planning approach results in too much control, with deviations from the plan meaning the project will not deliver what was agreed and that additional costs may be incurred. If the costs or timeframes change significantly from initial sign off, it is likely that stakeholders concerned with these criteria will view the project to be a failure – this concept is discussed in more detail later in this essay.
While it is believed that too much planning can be detrimental to a project’s success, Dvir & Lechler (2004) and Andersen (1996) agree planning is still necessary, though should not be viewed as a onetime task as it is difficult at the start to identify the exact constraints of a project. While it is accepted that changes to plans can result in higher costs, Dvir & Lechler (2004) argue that the plan should be frequently revisited as it can be influenced by factors such as changes to requirements, external factors, or the change of a new manager. Andersen (1996) suggests the concept of milestones, which define a series of results that need to be achieved rather than the final project outcome. From this, it is viewed that project success is more likely when a plan is adaptable throughout a project.
Regardless of if the plan is static or dynamic, expected outputs of this phase are the confirmation of the constraints of time, cost, and quality – a concept frequently referred to as the Iron Triangle. Atkinson (1999) finds that these are often the most commonly used criteria for measuring project success – although with different weightings applied depending on the project. For example, a project to build a stadium would not be a success if it didn’t deliver the stadium in time for a major sporting event, even if the project met the quality and cost constraints.
However, the Iron Triangle uses criteria which are defined early on in a project – Atkinson (1999) suggests that time and costs are simply best guesses, calculated when the least is known about a project. As time and costs are point in time estimates, they can be easily influenced by factors unforeseen during planning – in the example of building a stadium, a global shortage of steel will have significant impacts to the time and costs involved in the initial construction which will delay other phases. Atkinson (1999) also views quality as a subjective measure which can change either through the lifecycle of a project or based on the viewpoint of the person measuring it. The reality behind the Iron Triangle is that it is a series of leading measures, used to show how a project is progressing to a pre-agreed plan and enable a project team to gauge progress – something de Wit (1988) feels is not the same as project success. Unfortunately, as seen by Atkinson (1999), the Iron Triangle is often used as by senior management as a lag indicator in measuring the project once it has been completed.
What can be determined from this is that while it is not incorrect to use the Iron Triangle as part of a measure of success, it should really be the focus of measuring a projects progress and likelihood of success. Atkinson (1999) and De Wit (1988) agree that different criteria should be defined to measure the success of a project post-completion. As with the example of a stadium, it would be viewed as successful if it was delivered to time, budget, and requirements – but if the stadium never hosted an event would the community view it as a success.
So while Iron Triangle provides a way for a project team to gauge progress it is the team itself, including the project manager, who are tasked with completing a project. Can a team have an impact on the success of a project, even if they deliver on time and budget? de Wit (1988) discusses how studies within the construction industry show that the likelihood of a project being successful is enhanced when emphasis is placed on a range of criteria specific to the human side of a project – project manager commitment and capabilities, and team motivation. The interesting thing here is that team skill was not seen to be as critical to success, but Scott-Young & Samson (2008) do find that team design is shown to influence task productivity. There is opportunity for further research into this topic.
Scott-Young & Samson (2008) state that several factors, such as cross-functionality of skills; a degree of autonomy within the team, experience; and continuity of team, should be considered in team design. Based on their research, they find that there is a clear correlation between these factors and the project outcomes when the project team is working towards a common goal. Açıkgöz & Günsel (2016) feel that a cross-functional team with a mutual goal are more likely to develop higher quality ideas on how to deliver project outcomes than if they do not have a goal. This aligns to the view of Bart (as cited in Dvir, et al. 2003) who views it as a more important factor of project success for the project team to be given a degree of creativity than strict adherence to the plan.
While the team structure may be ideal, the greatest influencer on how the team operates is the project manager. As stated by de Wit (1988) project manager motivation is frequently viewed as having an impact on how the team performs – a manager who is not motivated by the project outcome or goals is not likely to be able to motivate their team well in turn. Equally, a manager who is motivated only by delivering to the plan could have a detrimental impact on the project – though some projects, especially during crisis management, may necessitate rigid adherence to a plan.
So, if a project manager is the greatest influencer on a project, what impact would it have if they were changed? Scott-Young & Samson (2008) argue that while the project manager themselves should be able to adapt to the changing needs of the project, changing the project manager through a project lifecycle may be detrimental to the project outcomes. They find that there is a direct and positive relationship between project manager continuity and project outcomes. The linkage to project success here is clear – appoint the right project manager, don’t change them, and success is more likely.
While the team is critical in delivering a project, they are delivering to a separate, varied, group of people – the stakeholders. The Project Management Institute (as cited in Aragonés-Beltrán, P, García-Melón, & Montesinos-Valera, 2017) describes stakeholders as anybody who may have an impact on, or be impacted by, a projects performance or result. It may be that a single project has many different stakeholder groups, all with different viewpoints – in the earlier example of a stadium, stakeholder groups will include the authorities who commission it, the companies who construct it, the sports teams who will use it, and the citizens who will attend events held at it. Each of these stakeholder groups will have a different opinion on the finished stadium, with it being possible for the project to be viewed both as a success and a failure – a concept supported by de Wit (1988)
Beltrán, et al. (2017) argue that it is critical that all project stakeholders are identified by the project manager as early as possible to be able to measure their ongoing influence in the project. In many cases, the viewpoints of the stakeholders will be obvious – those who commission a project will be looking for the completed business outcome, while any investors may be looking for a significant return. Atkinson (1999) also believes that as “Customers and users are examples of stakeholders… the criteria they consider as important for success should also be included in assessing a project” (p. 340).
But when is the right time for project stakeholders to be engaged? It is found that stakeholder engagement, as with planning, should be an ongoing activity that takes place throughout the project and makes as much effort as possible to involve all stakeholder groups. Dvir, et al. (2003) find that stakeholders are vital to determining the project goals, and therefore shaping the deliverables and requirements, further stating that the important group which is often overlooked is the end-user of a project. This view, shared by many studies, puts forward that if an end-user is not satisfied with what the project delivers they will either not buy or consume it. This in turn will have a knock-on effect to many of the other project stakeholders, particularly any investors looking for a return. Dvir, et al. (2003) argue that the “end-user involvement should start at the first stage of the project and continue until its successful end” (p.95).
Project success is a subjective measure which is largely dependent on the viewpoint from which the project is being measured. This adds complexity to how projects are measured and indicates that success is not a binary result. Instead, the right measures should be chosen which are applicable to the specific project and should not just be those covered in the Iron Triangle. These measures should be agreed with all stakeholder groups and be visited throughout the project delivery phase to be adjusted accordingly. Finally, it is critical that the end user has an involvement in all facets of the project – from planning right through to delivery. This will ensure the project meets the needs of the audience.
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Açıkgöz, A., & Günsel, A. (2016). Individual Creativity and Team Climate in Software Development Projects: The Mediating Role of Team Decision Processes. Creativity & Innovation Management, 25(4), 445-463.
Andersen, E. S. (1996). Warning: activity planning is hazardous to your projects health! International Journal of Project Management, 14(2), 89–94.
Aragonés-Beltrán, P., García-Melón, M., & Montesinos-Valera, J. (2017, April). How to assess stakeholders’ influence in project management? A proposal based on the Analytic Network Process. International Journal of Project Management., 35(3), 451-462.
Atkinson, R. (1999). Project management: cost, time and quality, two best guesses and a phenomenon, it’s time to accept other success criteria. International Journal of Project Management, 17(6), 337-342.
De Wit, A. (1988). Measurement of project success. International Journal of Project Management, 6(3), 164-170.
Dvir, D., & Lechler, T. (2004). Plans are nothing, changing plans is everything: the impact of changes on project success. Research Policy, 33(1), 1-15.
Dvir, D., Raz, T., & Shenhar, A. J. (2003). An empirical analysis of the relationship between project planning and project success. International Journal of Project management, 21(2), 89-95.
Scott-Young, C., & Samson, D. (2008). Project success and project team management: Evidence from capital projects in the process industries. Journal of Operations Management, 26(6), 749–766.
Shenhar, A. J., Dvir, D., Levy, O., & Maltz, A. C. (2001). Project Success: A Multidimensional Strategic Concept. Long range Planning, 34(6), 699–725.
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