Whether we seek full success or allow degrees of success of failure determines the results we deliver. Allowing 'degrees of success' thinking is sloppy thinking

Go for gold or just finish?

None of us like to fail. We always want to claim some level of success from our projects. “At least we got the system in” or “We were on budget even if it did go over time.”

To guarantee ‘success’ some consultancies blatantly suggest that you should only define the measures of success on delivery. Of course this approach is nonsense.

The impacts of thinking ‘degrees of success’

Of course ‘compromise’ is accepted as part of reality. We may aim for, say, a $10 million saving, but if we get, say, $8 million, that’s a degree of success.

My problem is that thinking in terms of ‘degrees of success’ allows unnecessary compromises and waste. As long as some degree of ‘success’ is claimable, the project can be seen to be ‘successful’ regardless of the actual results delivered (and not delivered).

The impacts of thinking ‘degrees of failure’

A more demanding approach is to think in terms of ‘degrees of failure’. In the above example, delivering $8 million when you sought to deliver $10 million is a failure to some ($2 million) degree.

I used to be an international swimmer. When I got onto the starting blocks my goal was to win, to come first. Coming second, fifth or whatever was failure. I did not put in the hours and hours of training to come second or worse. I either succeeded (won) or failed. Coming in second was a lessor degree of failure than, say, coming in sixth, but it was still a degree of failure.

If we approach our projects determined to ‘win’ and ensure we do deliver, in our example, the full $10 million, this will change our mindset and determination to deliver the full value of the project. Delivering $8 million is now a degree of failure, not success.

The need to change the mindset

Currently the prevailing mindset is to claim ‘degrees of success’ whatever the actual results— allowing compromise, loss, wastage, etc to be tolerated or even encouraged. For example, the project industry’s reinterpretation of ‘critical success factors’ (CSFs) [1] to mean “the most important measures of success” that can be picked off to the detriment of the other success measures is a recipe for delivering degrees of failure.[2]

Any shift in thinking will need to be wholly supported by the business as they wear the consequences of any degrees of failure.

So the core question is,

“Is the business willing to change its mindset, lift up its standards and go for gold or will it just remain happy to finish?”

What do you think?


[1]      Critical success factors are really those aspects that have to exist or go right for the project to succeed. They are the pre-requisites of success, not measures of success.

[2]      This misinterpreted CSF meaning also ignores the power of path dependency—that many benefits and success measures are actually dependent on some of the lower-level success measures that the CSF approach tries to discount and ignore.


Topics: Project Success

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (may 2016) as "Degrees Of Failure Of Success?"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections