Project completion does not equal project success. Project success is a different measure that orthodox methodologies do not support. A new approach is needed.

Defending completion to claim success

When the existing project and program methodologies are challenged, project practitioners staunchly defend them with evidence of their completed projects.

They will extol how they delivered this and that project, sometimes delivering all of the deliverables, occasionally delivering some benefits. Fantastic; but completion is not success. Even when you have delivered everything you were asked to deliver this does not necessarily equal ‘success’.

‘Success’ is when the organization has maximized its return on investment in both financial and non-financial terms.

Success (using this business value definition) is still rare because

1                The true business outcomes and value are rarely defined

2                The project does not deliver all of the necessary outputs/outcomes to realize the value

3                The business does not pursue the full delivery of the benefits and value.

"Not our concern"

Now the project fraternity will protest that they cannot be held responsible if the business does not define what it really wants and does not take action to fully realize the value. True. But just ‘washing your hands’ of the problem is not the solution. You need to be able to help them define the true business value they desire—their Value Equation.

"Not our approach"

If you watch a project manager operate it can look like this:

  • Task complete - Tick
  • Deliverable delivered - Tick
  • All work on the work breakdown structure complete - Tick = project finished.

But delivering a project is not a matter of completing tasks—it is a matter of achieving the desired business outcomes with their benefits and value operating in the business.

Imagine each project’s tasks as the components of a car. Having a complete set of components does not deliver a car—it is how these components are put together and aligned and tuned which will determine if the car is drivable and how well it drives. When you commission a car to be built, you don’t want completed components (tasks), you want to drive—that is your desired outcome.

"Not in the methodology"

The orthodox methodologies are not facilitating success. Although it is changing, many (most?) project managers will still assert that they have nothing to do with the delivery of benefits. Benefits are mostly treated as a 'hoped for' extra or a parallel stream—yet benefits delivery should be the principal driver a project.

Orthodox methodologies skimp on a most critical part of value delivery—change. This was the worst performed aspect of projects 30 years ago and still is. Various ‘change methodologies’ have been created to “sell” change to the staff, but change is a delivery process, not a promotional campaign—consequently ‘success’ can end up falling between the change and project management methodologies.

The prevalence of the orthodox project methodologies with their claims to successfully deliver projects has led to the business abdicating their roles and accountabilities. The business believes the existing methodologies will deliver success because they’re told so. The fact that the majority of business executives cite, “On time, on budget” as their primary measures of project success is a real worry. Their business dimensions and performance measures are missing in action.

"Agility over utility"

The industry’s response is been to go for speed of delivery through Agile techniques. This is good PROVIDED what is being delivered maximizes the business value delivered and sustained. Fast-tracking completion is by itself of little value; you need to fast-track success through the rapid delivery of all of the available value.

The four perspectives/lenses

Many years ago we identified that successful projects required the active and informed involvement of four perspectives or lenses—the strategic investment, business value, project delivery and technical delivery ‘lenses’. Most of the existing methodologies largely ignore the top two levels of required expertise: strategy investment and business value. Even the orthodox portfolio methodologies (which should be part of the strategic investment perspective or ‘lens’) are based on a project perspective (although they do try to talk strategy).

See the TOP ebook on "The TOP Four Value Delivery Lenses"

What do you want?

The questions for your organization are:

  1. “Do you want success or just completion?”
  2. “Do you want sustained business improvements and realized value, or just on time, on budget project delivery?”

The ‘catch’ is that if your organization wants ‘sustained business improvements and realized value’ it needs to take back control of projects and define, drive and deliver the business value. The organizations that do this increase profitability and shareholder value by more than 30% over their peers (McKinsey and others).

That is quite a payback. But is your management team willing to pay the price of taking back leadership and direction of their project portfolio?

Their starting point can be adopting an objective, business strategy based project prioritization process.


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Topics: Project Success

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Aug 2008) as "Project Completion Is Not 'Project Success'"

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