Business managers can tend to lose sight of their business context and goals when on projects. To combat this you need to change the measures of success

In a separate world?

Business managers seem to think that projects exist and operate in a separate world. That projects exist in and for themselves – in a ‘project bubble’.

This explains why, when asked, most business managers will say the measures of project success are “on time, on budget, to specification” rather than the delivery of the desired business outcomes, benefits and value. They have lost the business context for their projects.

Decisions are made on projects to improve the time and cost performance of the project rather than to improve the performance of the business.

“Beating the system” to get a project approved that is actually not worthwhile, relevant or likely to succeed, is seen as a ‘win’ that can, at times, consume organizational resources that would be better allocated to more worthwhile projects.

In the business world, the rules are quite simple:

  • If a project does not stack up; don’t do it.
  • If a project won’t improve the business, don’t do it.
  • If a project decision will destroy business value, don’t make it.

In this separate project world these rules don't seem to exist.

Supporting failure

Projects exist to improve the business — yet 40% of projects are measured as leaving their organizations worse off. Sometimes this is due to project team incompetence, but often it is that the project was fundamentally flawed from the outset and never recovered. Yet, when we analyze these situations we find business managers were actively involved in promoting and protecting the project despite its obvious (or ‘don’t look now’) failings.

The dangers of abdication

The emergence of the project profession has exacerbated this situation. Now the business manager can abdicate responsibility to the project manager. If it all goes wrong, then they fire the project manager. But that’s irrelevant. If it all goes wrong, the business is damaged. The business is not going to receive the outcomes, benefits and value expected. Key strategies will be compromised. Planned productivity or cost savings, or speed-to-market goals will not be realized. Staff will be saddled with inefficient processes or the need to create workarounds to keep the business going.

Bursting the bubble

Somehow we need to burst this ‘project bubble’ that business managers seem to enter when they become involved in projects. We need to get them to realize that all projects and programs are business initiatives designed to deliver improved business results, and that these business dimensions override any project delivery measures.

A starting point that all business managers will relate to is to change the measures of project success.

“You, Ms Sponsor, will only be deemed to be successful if your project investment/business initiative fully delivers the agreed desired business outcomes, benefits and (net) value.”

The ‘net value’ captures any cost overruns that diminish the net value realized and any benefits loss caused by time overruns which diminish the gross value to be realized. The Sponsor still needs to manage and measure the time and costs but their primary measures of success are the measured delivery of the desired business outcomes, benefits and value.

By changing the success measures you have at least started to burst the ‘project bubble’.

Free webinar on project success

Other ‘pins’ you can use to burst the bubble are:

  • Training governance teams to effectively focus on and deliver the targeted business value.
  • Eliminating ‘set up to fail’ projects at the outset or at the latest at the business case stage rather than allowing them to be gamed through the approval process.
  • Making it clear that ‘failure’ is not cancelling a project, but is NOT cancelling a project immediately it is no longer relevant, worthwhile or deliverable.

How many ‘pins’ do you have to burst your business management’s ‘project bubble’?


Topics: Project Success

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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Dec 2015) as "How To Burst The "Project Bubble""

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