Is your organization targeting project success or trying 'not to fail'? Winning or not losing are diametrically different approaches.

When the English cricket team recently had to survive 120 overs to ‘save’ a test match, they went in to bat so as to ‘not lose’ and were all out in only a few overs. Why?

Diametrical opposites

Planning to win or not to lose are diametrically opposing strategies, triggered by different psychological and physiological mechanisms. The hallmark characteristics of playing to win – in projects this is targeting success – are an intensification of effort and continuous (managed) risk taking. The equivalent for playing not to lose is conservatism and trying to avoid risks and costly mistakes.

Limited thinking

Think about the language around projects:

  • Risk mitigation
  • Identifying ‘just enough’ benefits to justify the project
  • Not going over time or budget
  • “Projects in a controlled environment” (Prince2).

None of this thinking is ‘success’ oriented.

If you look at the evolution of the project management ‘industry’ it is characterized by trying to clearly define its role, its scope and its accountabilities—its limits. While understandable this approach has lost sight of why projects exist. They exist not to give the project manager a role with a scope and limited accountabilities, but to deliver and sustain a set of business outcomes, benefits and value.

Most projects and project methodologies are geared around not losing or, in the case of projects, ‘not failing’. ‘Failing’ is most often seen as not completing, not delivering anything.

Completion is not ‘success’

With this definition of ‘failure, even if your project is ‘completed’ three times over budget in double the time but delivers ‘something’ you can classify it as ‘not a failure’.  But this type of result is definitely not project success.

Even if your project comes in on time and budget and to specification, if you haven’t delivered what the business needs and enabled all of the associated value, you have not succeeded.

As a result of the project management’s ‘lets not fail’ thinking, most methodologies do not even equip you to define ‘success’—to define your business outcomes, benefits and value.

You are unlikely to ‘succeed’ if you don’t target success. You are even more unlikely to succeed if you don’t even define success. ‘Completion’ is not success.

Is your organization merely trying to avoid failure; or is it clearly defining and targeting success?

Don’t be fooled by assertions of, “Of course we target success” look at the reality. Is ‘risk mitigation’ a key component? Is ‘success’ measured by ‘on time/on budget’? Are the business outcomes, benefits and value (each project’s Value Equation) NOT clearly specified in measurable terms (if they are specified at all)?

Don’t despair as most organizations try to avoid failure. To switch to targeting success is simple. As we'll explain in our next blog.




Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Jul 2015) as "Is Your Organization Really Targeting Project Success?"

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