Who Defines “Success” for Your Project?


I would assert that the only people who can determine whether or not a project is successful are the project’s sponsors—the leaders (usually executives) in an organization who have responsibility during the project for deciding whether or not to continue investing in it. If you were on the Sydney city council, you might have imagined that the Opera House was worth an expenditure of $3-$4 per person for your citizenry in 1957 (several hours’ wages at the time). When the cost ballooned to $40-$50 per citizen (a week’s wages for many) and you faced difficult choices about cutting spending elsewhere, you might have felt differently. The sponsors get to decide whether the project is worth the investment and the risk. The sponsors get to decide whether to maintain, expand, or curtail scope to meet budget or schedule objectives. The primary role of the project manager is to support informed sponsor decision making.

I first read the book in 2008, but an NPR story about several cities in the US that are literally on the verge of bankruptcy due to runaway public works projects renewed my interest in the subject. One of the examples in the NPR story was Harrisburg, PA’s incinerator project that initially cost $15 million but had a final price tag of $288 million. My intention is not to kick the nice folks of Harrisburg when they are down or to fault the project manager of the incinerator project (I don’t know the details), but instead to offer their story as a cautionary tale to any project managers who might be tempted to lose sight of whose interest you are expected to serve.

Projects (particularly IT projects) can be difficult to estimate. Sometimes this is due to poor planning, sometimes it may be a consequence of unforeseen circumstances, and sometimes unknowns have a bigger impact on our projects than we expect. All a good project manager can do is be rigorous and try to inform sponsors about the likely time and budget requirements as well as the likelihood that those requirements are reasonably accurate. Sometimes surprises arise in the middle of a project. When a project has begun and actual cost and schedule performance data becomes available, project managers should provide the data should to sponsors to inform decisions about whether and how to continue.

I believe successful project management is about supporting informed sponsor decisions. Did the project manager provide timely and accurate information? Were decisions made at an appropriate organizational level? Were the right decisions escalated? Was risk managed consciously? Successful project management may not always lead to a successful project. Sponsors may make informed decisions to accept risks that undermine a project’s business case if they materialize. This is not a failure of project management.

I would argue that project success can only be determined by the project’s sponsors—not the team, observers, pundits, or consumers of the product the project creates. If sponsor goals are achieved within acceptable boundaries of time and resources, then sponsors should consider the project successful. Sponsors are allowed to modify or redefine their goals at any time during the project. In my view, determining success is not the jurisdiction of spectators after the fact, based upon how much they appreciate the project results. If that were true, the Harrisburg incinerator might be considered a successful project.

It seems to me that if we want projects to succeed, then the very first step is for us to agree upon a definition of “success.” What do you think? Was the Sydney Opera house a “success”? How would you decide that? What about the Harrisburg incinerator? Why? I look forward to your comments below.

1. Aaron J. Shenhar and Dov Dvir, Reinventing Project Management: The Diamond Approach to Successful Growth & Innovation (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007), 21.

User Comments

1 comment
Mark Hart's picture

Every project has multiple potentials for multiple successes. Every individual associated with a project is likely to have unique perspectives on successes. For example:


A project manager may emphasize the mismatch between forecasts and the actual project parameters. Planned project cost and duration are likely to be compared to actual project cost and duration. Success may be determined by the mismatch. Success may relate to performance. Perceived performance may be reflected on the project manager's résumé and performance evaluation. 


Sponsors have multiple perspectives on successes. Some may consider it a success that the project was approved and produced. Factors related to budget and duration are only two ways to assess the project. The forecast is one factor that impacts the probability that a particular project is funded.


Engineering and operations may need to synthesize new approaches to solve unique challenges. They may perceive greater success because of the quality of the solution rather than compliance with a derived date on a calendar.


Some individual contributors (engineers, coders, documentation specialists,...) declare success if the project provided gainful employment.


Some individuals ascribe success from non-monetary factors. Did they have the opportunity to improve their skills? Did the improve their professional network? Did this project make a difference?



An individual begins a project with a some expectations of success – a forecast. As the project progresses, any individual can evolve their perspective. Some individuals strive to move from planning projects and features to designing a context where their successes are inevitable.


May 14, 2015 - 9:04pm

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