Rethinking Project Success and Failure

I think we have an issue in the field of project management.  Defining project success and failure only in terms of on-time and on-budget performance is simplistic and wrong. Software projects are about solving problems for customers.

I have seen countless resumes from aspiring project managers and performance reviews that claim proficiency in project management measured by these two factors only. While they are important components of project management, being on time and on budget does not mean that the end result met the customer’s needs.

On the flip side, being over budget or behind schedule does not mean ipso facto that the project was necessarily a failure. In the real world of software development, the initial requirements that drove the schedule and budget will change. The business environment is always in flux and the problems the customer wants solved will be shaped by changes in their operating environment.  Let me say this one more time:  change is a constant and must be accounted for in any project.

That shift in priorities and constraints is the key reason that project managers must be in constant contact with their customer and stakeholders.

The need to include quality and user satisfaction as part the duties of a project manager is not a new idea.  The DeLone and McLean Information System success model from many years ago offers additional factors that should be considered in evaluating the success of a software project.  Here are their suggestions summarized in Defining and Measuring Project Success by Danie van der Westhuizen:

• System Quality: measure of the information processing system itself
• Information Quality: measure of information system output
• Information Use: measure of recipient consumption of the output of an information system
• User Satisfaction: measure of recipient response to the use of the output of an information system
• Individual Impact: measure of the effect of information on the recipient
• Organizational Impact: measure of the effect of information on organizational performance

I think their last criteria—organizational impact—is really important to track as a measure of success or failure. If a piece of software or even a new process is timely and cost efficient but is never used by the customer, to me that is a project failure. On the other hand, if a project evolves to meet customer’s changing requirements, is used by the customer, and improves the customer’s bottom line—that project was successful even if it took more time to complete and required modifications to cost and scope.

Another interesting perspective on expanding the definition of project success and failure was presented by Scott Ambler writing for Dr. Dobb’s Journal.  He reports on a 2007research project  that surveyed 105 professionals including project managers, IT managers, and business stakeholders about how they comparatively ranked three common project success criteria:

% who agree with this statement

Project managers

IT managers

Business stakeholders

Shipping when the system is ready is more important than shipping on schedule




Providing the best ROI is more important than delivering under budget




Delivering high quality is more important than delivering on time and on budget




Clearly a justifiable conclusion from this small survey is that customers are more interested in the utility of the resulting software product than they are in forcing compliance with schedule and cost parameters set at the beginning of the project. It is up to the project manager to work closely with the business stakeholders throughout the development cycle to clearly explain the reasons and benefits of modifications in schedule and cost, so that everyone ends up convinced in the delivered project’s success.

One last thought or rather caveat—all changes have an impact or cost.  While you should always be ready to accept change, it is not something done lightly or without judging the impact on cost or schedule and then getting buy-in, approval or consensus.

Your thoughts on measuring software project success and failure are invited via comments.

Project Managers–What Does Your Team Want From You?

There are character traits that most of us would like to believe we possess and that we want to find in the people we work with and work for: trust, integrity, respect, and honesty—sort of like the mantra of the Boy Scouts. Good project managers have those traits and others that make people want to work for them.

What are the traits and behaviors that team members want in their project leader or immediate boss? Here are my observations from being a project manager and observing other PMs—some that were effective and valued and others who were pariahs that employees did everything they could to avoid.

Behaviors Team Members Want in a Project Manager

  • Information sharing. What is happening? What is likely to happen? What effect will it have on me and on the project? Project managers often have access to the thinking and plans of senior management. Although your team does not want to know every machination going on in the larger organization, they want you to be aware and to share information with them in a timely fashion.
    • If you don’t know—say so
    • If you can’t say because you are under a promise of confidentiality—don’t lie. Promise to get the information or temporize with a promise to provide answers as soon as possible.
  • Protection or “executive cover”. Give team members the ability to try things with the security of knowing they will not be offered up in a blame game. Project managers must cover their team on risky tasks or approaches to problems that they have agreed ahead of time; they do not leave them hung out to dry if things go south.
  • Stretch your team with assignments that offer learning opportunities and future advancement potential.
  • Recognize a task or deliverable that is well done and give feedback including upwards in the chain of command. If things don’t go so well, provide guidance and support.
  • Provide a clear understanding of what each team member is responsible for and the metrics that will be used to measure individual’s and project team’s success. Be consistent.
  • Try to solve problems identified by the team whether it is getting a software tool or an adding a resource to off-load some less critical tasks.
  • Be there when the going gets tough—set an example by coming in early, working late, taking an undesirable shift on occasion.
  •  Defend the team from unreasoned and unreasonable demands—when someone says there are four A+ critical projects that must all be done by the end of the week—learn to say no and to compromise with senior managers, marketers, and customers.
  • Treat the team members like people who have lives outside the office.

Project Manager Behavior No-No’s

  • Take credit for the work of others.
  • Treat team members you like better than those you do not enjoy as much.
  • Being a buddy instead of the manager.
  • Inconsistency—sometimes it is okay to be late and another time it is “off with their heads”.
  • Negativity and constant pessimism about the company, the project or life in general.
  • Taking over and solving problems that team members need to learn how to solve on their own—not only do you miss a growth opportunity by doing this, but you telegraph your lack of faith in them.
  • Asking an employee to lie.
  • Offering hollow motivations—see Project Management Buzz words and Clichés – September 4, 2009.

You are sincerely invited to add to this list with your comments and experiences.

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