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The definitive guide to project success criteria

Definitive guide to Project Success CriteriaI get asked about project success criteria a lot – in fact, it’s one of the most searched terms on this site. So I thought it was about time that I pooled all my resources into one definitive guide to project success criteria.

And where better to start than with a definition of what project success criteria actually are:

Project success criteria: a definition

Project success criteria are the standards by which the project will be judged at the end to decide whether or not it has been successful in the eyes of the stakeholders.

OK, glad we got that sorted. Now let’s look at why we should care about project success criteria.

Why are success criteria important?

Organisations don’t define failure. We don’t document how we will know if a project has failed – what failure looks like – because thinking about failing is not a good way to motivate the project team when the work has only just started. The absence of a formal definition of failure makes it uncomfortably easy for internal and external stakeholders to brand projects a failure.

Think about some of the projects that have hit the headlines recently (in any country). Projects ‘fail’ in the eyes of the media and stakeholders because for people are left to guess what success looks like. Is it delivery on time? Is it delivery on budget? Perhaps those two things really don’t matter much to the stakeholders concerned if they get a great quality result and happy customers.

Successful organisations take the guesswork out of this process: they define what success looks like, so they know when they have achieved it. If you want project success, you have to define what success looks like for your project. Perhaps budget is the most important thing to your stakeholders, and quality is taking a back seat on the project. Perhaps customer satisfaction is essential, and you don’t care how many overtime hours the team has to work to get that end result.

Project success criteria are a great tool to use to manage stakeholders and to generate engagement. You can use them to define the project’s goals and track progress – and if your stakeholders stop caring about your success criteria you’ve got an early warning sign that you need to do more to continue to keep them on side.

Project success criteria are the standards by which the project will be judged at the end to decide whether or not it has been successful in the eyes of the stakeholders.

Whatever success looks like, you have to define it so you can own it. There are two types of success criteria that you’ll need to define for your project.

Two types of project success criteria

So you want to know how you’ll know if your project has been a success? You need to identify what success looks like for you and your stakeholders. And the easiest way to do this is to brainstorm with your team.

During this process you’ll probably come up with success criteria related to the management of the project. These are the success criteria which you can refer to in project audits or the post-project review. They help focus your mind on the ‘business’ of project management and relate to doing the project right. They help you check that you’re hitting all the right targets and are applying project management standards appropriately. Examples would be things like:

  • Hold a Project Board meeting once a month
  • Complete project audits in line with the timetable published by the Project Office
  • Ensure all timesheets are completed by the deadlines
  • Achieve 95% compliance on project quality reviews.

Alone these success criteria are not sufficient. They help you measure whether you’re doing a good job but not whether you are actually delivering anything useful for your stakeholders.

Your success criteria analysis should also identify deliverable-based project success criteria which are strongly linked to the business case and the rationale behind doing the project. It’s hard to give sensible examples as they are tied so tightly to what your project is delivering but you should aim for things like:

  • Achieve rollout of software to all users
  • Train 95% of staff within the two week training period
  • Improve customer satisfaction by 65% over the first three months
  • Gain Centre of Excellence accreditation for Marketing department.

You get the picture.

So, to summarise:

  • Project management success criteria: Related to the professional job of running the project e.g. Produce and gain sign off for project initiation document
  • Project deliverable success criteria: Related to things delivered as a result of the project e.g. Distribute 6,000 instructional leaflets to households in our target area.

Document your success criteria

Document your project success criteria in a list. I include the list in the Project Charter or Project Initiation Document so it’s easy to refer to.

Each list item should include:

  • Name of success criteria
  • How it is going to be measured
  • How often it is going to be measured
  • Who is responsible for measuring it

You can also capture the output of the measurements here if you want, or move that to another relevant project document. Personally I like to keep them separate, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work to have your records all in one place.

Documenting your success criteria also means that you can get project stakeholders to sign up to them. Having them clearly recorded makes it easy to refer to them later and there is no ambiguity about what you set out to do.

Of course, you can change them later, add a few more or take some away if the project evolves.

How to measure project success criteria

You have two choices when it comes to measuring project success criteria:

  • Discrete: Yes/No
    We did or did not do something
    Examples: Project delivered on time, company gained XYZ accreditation, new branch opened
  • Continuous: measurable on a scale
    We did something to a certain extent, within a target range
    Examples: Improve customer satisfaction scores to between 75 per cent and 100 per cent, increase revenue by 8-10 per cent, rebrand 15-20 offices within Quarter Four.

Continuous measurements always include the possibility of being translated into discrete targets. If customer satisfaction was 75 per cent in May, and the target was 60 per cent, you reached the target. If it was 59 per cent, you didn’t. Monitoring benefits on a continuous scale is always better as it allows you to track changes over a period of time. If the customer satisfaction target was reached in May, that’s fantastic. But you cannot tell from a yes/no measurement if it was better or worse than April or what the trend into June is looking like. So go for continuous measurements wherever you can.

Baselining performance

It’s great knowing how you are going to measure success criteria going forwards, but how are you doing today? If you want to capture trending information then you have to take a baseline of current performance as soon as you can, preferably as soon as you have set the success criteria. The problem is that at the beginning of a project there’s normally so much going on that baselining current performance takes a back seat to doing improvements and delivering change.

Still, make time for it, or you’ll have a harder job later working out whether your project has made a difference. It’s great knowing that you are now calling back customers within 20 minutes, but if you don’t know what the call back time was before project was implemented you may very well have made the situation worse – you just can’t tell.

A performance baseline lets you identify the differences in performance in the post-project world related to the things you consider important measures – your project success criteria. Use the same calculations and tracking method to work out your baseline performance as you intend to do for measuring your success criteria later. Otherwise you are introducing even more variables into the mix – keep it simple.

When do I track success criteria?

You’ll take an initial performance benchmark as soon as you can in the project, as we saw above. Then you have to work out how often you want to measure your project success criteria. I think that each success criteria will have different requirements. Some you can track once a month, others you’ll only measure once more. Some you won’t track very often and then as soon as you hit delivery you might be measuring them daily (like daily quality targets or call handling times). For help on what you should be reporting regularly, get my e-course and ebook on Better Project Status Reports.

Project management-related success criteria do not need to be tracked over time and so you do not need to generate a baseline of current performance. Once the project or task is over you should be able to say with certainty whether or not, and to what extent, you met the criteria. Did you hold those Project Board meetings monthly? I hope so. But if you didn’t, the project is over and chances are no one cares anymore.

The true business benefits, on the other hand, hopefully last for a lot longer. Even a one-off project like changing all the office light bulbs to energy efficient ones has durable benefits. The success criteria could be: ‘maintain electricity savings at 40 per cent of previous expenditure for three years.’ The measurement of these over time should be handed to the operations team as part of the project handover when the project closes. You should not keep the responsibility for tracking success criteria (i.e. project benefits) over time. While the project is running, report on your progress so you celebrate the successes as you go. And if there aren’t successes to celebrate, so you can adjust your project approach so that you do hit your success criteria.

Project success criteria: the summary

To summarise:

  • You must define what success looks like for your project or you won’t know if you have achieved it.
  • Success criteria measure what’s important to your stakeholders.
  • Document success criteria and get everyone to agree to them.
  • Use continuous measurements where possible.
  • Baseline today’s performance so you know where you are starting from.
  • Track as appropriate and report on your progress.

Is there anything you would add to this list? Let us know your thoughts on project success criteria in the comments below.


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How to make project meetings relevant to everyone

How to make meetings relevant to everyoneThis post contains Amazon affiliate links.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time sitting in meetings where the topics discussed aren’t relevant to me. Sometimes in team meetings I’m even listening to discussions about projects that I’m not working on. And I confess to checking my emails and even Facebook during the boring bits. So as a meeting organiser, how do you make your meetings relevant to everyone who attends?

There are a few options:

  1. Let people bring work to do during your meeting. They can switch on when the discussion concerns their tasks or projects.
  2. The core meeting attendees participate in the whole meeting and you call other people in as and when you need them.
  3. Hold separate meetings for each group.

There are advantages and disadvantages with each of these and for me the answer is clear: none of these options are ideal, so you can’t make the meeting relevant for everyone.

If you can’t make it relevant, you should at least make it as productive as you can.

Shared meetings promote knowledge sharing

My personal choice would be to go for option 1. The disadvantages of bored people outweigh the useful side conversations and collaboration that come from being in the same room, especially if you give them permission to carry on with quiet other work like emails while they are only half listening. Many useful bits of information have been passed on by team members looking up from their laptops as they catch part of a conversation that no one thought concerned them.

My project teams find being in the same room or on the same conference call useful, even if they don’t have anything to contribute to the topic being discussed. The feedback I’ve got is that it helps them feel more connected to the organisation as a whole and to see their work in a bigger picture context. I expect if you asked your project team members whether they appreciated being involved in a wider team meeting the majority of them would say yes.

Make your meetings productive

Start the meeting by identifying anyone who has critical work to do or other meetings and who cannot stay for the whole thing. Discuss topics relevant to them first. Then let them go if they have to.

Everyone else stays for the meeting, joining in for knowledge sharing as appropriate and doing quiet tasks when not engaged in the discussion.

This approach does rely on trusting your teams and knowing their work so that they don’t all say they have critical tasks and must be excused from the boring bits of the meeting.

Ground rules for quiet work

If you are going to permit teams to work during parts of the meeting that don’t relate to their tasks or projects then set some ground rules. No phone calls, no noisy tapping on keyboards, no headphones. You could seat the various workstream or technical teams together so that an individual who is trying to participate with the rest of his or her team isn’t distracted by people on either side scrolling through emails.

Also take a look at buzzword bingo and print out some cards for everyone. It might help keep the others in the room half-engaged while the main discussion is going on and I have always found it fun, especially if there is a prize!

Reduce meetings to increase productivity

If you think that one big meeting is still too unproductive, you can alternate the meetings each week. Hold a full team meeting with everyone one week. The following week hold shorter meetings with separate teams or individuals. You’ll get the benefit of collaboration, fostering team work, networking and knowledge sharing twice a month with focused status updates or review sessions in between.

More resources for successful meetings

Collaboration Explained is a good book about helping software teams work together on projects. Read my review of it here. The book is a bit old now but good meeting practice hasn’t changed since 2006 and there are some excellent ideas for getting technical teams engaged in successful meetings.

I’ve also read How To Be A Productivity Ninja recently. It’s not about meetings but I thought there were some good things in the book about how to get more done, prioritising tasks (by not going to meetings), managing time and so on. You can see my review of it here.

Would you take the same approach to making your meetings productive and relevant as me? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


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State of online PM softwareThis is a guest post by Jason Westland. Some links are affiliate links.

At the end of 2013 on this blog, I made three predictions for the future of online software. This is one area of project management that is evolving at a rapid pace, and I wanted to call out the trends I was witnessing.

It’s no secret that project management is a skill in demand. PMI predicts that through 2020, 1.57 million new project management jobs will be created every year. When I read that figure, I initially assumed that senior executives were recognizing the value that mature project management practices had on organizational results. They might recognize that as fact, but they aren’t seeing those results a lot of the time: I was surprised to learn that only 56% of strategic initiatives are successful.

The industry overall has its challenges, but what’s the outlook for project management software? While I didn’t have a crystal ball, I was basing my predictions on my knowledge of the project management and software industries. Let’s look back and see whether my predictions came true.

Prediction #1: Mobility will increase

I knew that we’d see more project management tools offering apps and tablet-friendly mobile sites, but the rate of mobile device adoption continues to be staggering while usage trends are still being studied. ProjectManager.com already had apps for Android and Apple devices but we redesigned our website this year to be more mobile friendly, with easy redirects to the apps to give users choices.

Gartner’s research into the technology trends of 2015 supports this, too. Given the growth in mobile device usage, Gartner predicts that it will be more important to serve the needs of mobile users in various situations. They also report that traditional deployment model for on-premises software is expected to significantly shrink from 34 percent today to 18 percent by 2017. That, combined with the analysts’ view that by 2018 nine out of ten phones will be smartphones, points to the view that mobile solutions are on the increase.

Project managers need to access their schedules and task lists from remote settings including home, the office and on the road, often in places with limited internet service. At ProjectManager.com we’ve released a number of improvements designed to improve the speed and performance of our software to make it easier to use wherever you are.

Verdict: Mobile usage is on the up, and usage will continue to be a focus next year too.

Prediction #2: More focus on security

I predicted that there would be more emphasis on securing project and customer data, but I couldn’t predict the large number of high profile data leaks that made the news this year. Security has definitely been on the radar over the last 12 months. PwC say that the total number of security incidents reported in their Global State of Information Security® study rocketed to 42.8 million this year, up 48% from 2013.

However, they also report that companies are investing in security solutions, especially in the mobile arena. Over half of respondents have implemented a mobile security strategy, up around 12% on last year. Project stakeholders need to know that their confidential project records are safe online.

Verdict: With more media attention on data security, project stakeholders will continue to demand security as a high priority in project management. ProjectManager.com already uses bank-level software encryption and over the coming year we’ll see more and more companies adopt transparent security models that build customer confidence.

Prediction #3: Greater interoperability

I predicted that we would see more interoperability – tools that interact with each other, or interfaces that offer access to multiple tools from one device or portal.

I originally thought that this would be dependent on vendors using standards and formats that provide a common platform, and other vendors potentially offering integration options, but the market has evolved in a different direction with the same objective: big data.

Big data – storing data sources from multiple systems in one place so that they can be analysed comprehensively – has also featured prominently in the news this year. Accenture reports that 89% of businesses who implemented big data projects are using the information to develop new products or services. More than one in three organizations said integrating with existing systems was a challenge, so that’s an area that many businesses will be focusing on during 2015.

Verdict: ProjectManager.com has definitely moved forward in terms of interoperability. With the big data trend showing no sign of slowing down I think we can safely say that bringing data sources together to provide better experiences for users is on the up.

I still don’t have that crystal ball but with big data solutions on the horizon, companies have more opportunities than ever before to tap into the knowledge in their own organization. They’ve got the power to build their own futures, and to commission the projects to turn those visions into reality. There has never been a better time to be a project manager.


About the author: Jason Westland is CEO and founder of the award-winning business ProjectManager.com, a SaaS project management software tool that is used in over 100 countries by organizations such as NASA and The United Nations. He is the author of the best-selling book, The Project Management Life Cycle, and he writes a regular newsletter which is read by 320,000 industry professionals around the World.


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5 Tips for Managing Project Communications in a Crisis

In this video I look at project communications during a crisis (text summary below).

For those of you who prefer reading or who can’t watch the video, here’s a summary:

There are always things that go wrong on projects – sometimes those issues are small; sometimes they are significant. Here are 5 tips to help you deal with project communications during an issue.

1.     Have a single point of contact

Appoint a single point of contact to deal with communications during the incident. That could be you or someone else from the project team, but make sure everyone knows who to go to for communication updates and who will be asking them for status reports. This person is dedicated to running the communication for all the stakeholders.

2.     Deal in facts

There will probably be quite a lot of emotions during a problem – people have an emotional response to what has gone wrong. Strip that back and deal with what you know to be true.

3.     Deal with what people are worried about

You might be dealing with something behind the scenes, such as a software bug, but your end users might be worried about something else. Don’t dismiss these views as unimportant. Those concerns are valid: listen to what those people are saying and deal with what is bothering them, even if that means you are splitting your efforts between fixing the behind the scenes problem and dealing with concerns from your users.

4.     Be fast

Get your messages out there as quickly as possible. It’s the best way to squash gossip before it starts.

5.     Plan for power down

Think about how you will deal with project communications if you don’t have electricity. It happens: power lines are cut through and generators go down. When you can’t rely on email, instant messaging or people being in front of their computers, how are you going to get the messages out?

View all my project management videos on my YouTube channel here.


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Top Tips for Breaking into Project Management

52 Tips to break into PM“What advice do you have for project management students fresh out of school who want to break into the discipline?”

That’s what Geoff Crane asked me, and other project managers, so he could compile our top tips for his students. I found it quite difficult to come up with some tips because there are so many things that I could pass on to new project managers. In the end, given the space constraints, this is what I came up with:

New project managers should show that they are flexible, willing to put in the time and able to listen to their project team members. As you don’t have much project management experience, look for other ways to contribute, such as through facilitating discussion, being great at documentation, being honest and transparent in communications and asking the questions that no one else dares to – I do this a lot and when you are new to a business or a job you can get away with it simply because you are new!

One of my first projects I forgot to identify a stakeholder group and didn’t talk to them at all. Then on go live day I had the head of that department on the phone wondering what had happened and why her team was swamped with extra work. Communicate more than you think you have to – extra stakeholders will appear where you least expect them. That doesn’t mean blanket emails to the whole company. It means tailored, relevant communication to specific stakeholders, but lots and lots of it. Phone people, stop by their offices, invite them to lunch or coffee. Especially on big projects, people do worry about not knowing what’s going on: it’s your job to stop that.

People do worry about not knowing what’s going on, especially on big projects. It’s your job to stop that.

Another unwritten rule of project management is that you protect your project team from politics and grief so that they can get on and do their jobs. If it helps, take the blame for problems yourself. It’s a great way to diffuse tension and help people move on to constructive problem solving. It is very hard for someone to keep shouting or ranting at you when you’ve apologised.

Finally, don’t forget that you are a project stakeholder too: you should always get something out of a project in terms of career development, even if it is just spending another 6 months working in an area you love.

Geoff put together a whole ebook. You can download it for free with a single click here. It’s a PDF document (no sign up required).


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Reinventing Communication [Book review]

Reinventing Communications Book Review“If we spend 90 percent of our time on communication, it makes sense to have a method to figure out if we are spending out time wisely and, if we are not, what we can do to improve communication,” writes Mark Phillips in his book, Reinventing Communication. That sounds sensible, so I was keen to read more.

Reinventing Communication isn’t a soft skills book. There’s nothing fluffy about it as it aims to follow a scientific approach. This is an interesting concept for something that has traditionally been seen as a project management soft skill – Phillips says it can be used as a performance management tool.

The new language of project communication

“This approach can help non-soft-skills oriented people think about the importance of communication and recognize the effect it has on project performance while providing a clear way for them to make their communication more effective.” Mark Phillips

The book is quite technical and there is a large new vocabulary to learn. He writes about Planned Communication (P COM), Actual Communication (A COM), and Communication Variance (COM V). COM V plus schedule performance indicates that a project is performing as planned with less than the planned amount of communication i.e. the team are efficient. As you can imagine, Phillips places a high value on EVM for communicating status as this fits with the analytical, data-based approach he advocates.

How practical is this?

Some of the ideas sound theoretically quite good but to a practitioner simply don’t seem workable. I’m not honestly sure, for example, how I would work in an environment where the project communications plan mandated the maximum number of emails I could send per week. How does that work in practice if a major issue hits and I need to do something about it? Phillips writes:

“We can also apply simple arithmetic and see whether the quantity of communication leads to a particular pattern of behaviour. For example, will sending 10 emails to my customer have them get back to me any faster? We can apply more advanced analytical methods such as studying word choice or the emotional tone of an artifact and see whether these make a difference in how people behave.”

We could, or we could just get on and manage the project. I doubt many project managers have time to do a controlled experiment about tone of voice in email, sending two different versions and seeing which group gets on with it faster. And how would you know if other factors were at play?

The book includes a checklist with steps to take to implement communications as a performance management system on your project. It’s step by step so this is useful, and it includes a reminder to translate the output of each step into measures. I understand the benefits of setting this up as it helps identify project problems early, based on observable and measurable phenomena, but the whole thing seems very clinical.

Phillips does acknowledge that projects are each different. There is no single right answer, because much of project management is defined by the people and environment. “We need to recognise that a project is a social environment,” he writes. Therefore you have to tailor project communications to account for the environment.

I have to confess that I struggled to stay awake while reading Reinventing Communication. That’s partly because I’m sleep-deprived with two babies in the house, but partly because I found the book’s theoretical style heavy going.

It’s interesting in an academic way but for practitioners? I’d like someone else to implement communications as a performance management tool on their project to give me real life proof that it works. If you try it out, let me know!

Reinventing communications book coverRight to reply

I asked Mark for his comments on this review and he said:

“One of the reasons behind the book was to challenge existing perceptions of communication as a soft skill so I was quite pleased to read that it did. I’ve tried to bridge the gap between the community that can execute effective communication as a soft skill (like yourself) and the community that could so much benefit from improving communication, such as engineers who became project managers or KPI/metrics focused managers. The idea behind the approach is to demonstrate the importance of communication through measurable data.

“Existing research into the importance of communication overwhelming shows how important it is in a general sense. I hope to empower project managers with the tools to prove its importance on their specific projects.

“Another goal is to show project managers how they can actually improve their communications, in a measurable way, without having to be masters of soft skills, which can be difficult for some people. I’ve done this by focusing on measurable aspects of communication, such as the total number of emails sent to a client in a week. For example, this aspect of communication, the total amount broadcast out, has been shown to make a difference in the effectiveness of communication. If a project manager consistently sends 10 emails to a client each week and doesn’t get the responses they need to meet deadlines, they can look at reducing the number of emails and seeing if that makes a difference. This approach can help non-soft-skills oriented people think about the importance of communication and recognize the effect it has on project performance while providing a clear way for them to make their communication more effective.”

Thanks, Mark, for taking the time to respond.

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Free project status report template

As project managers, we have a lot of reporting to do. So why not make life a bit easier? Here’s a free project status report template based on one I use myself for weekly updates. You can adapt it as you see fit to ensure it covers things your stakeholders would like to hear about… Continue Reading->

Coaching: Buy 4 weeks, get one free

  If you have been thinking about how to boost your project management career in 2015, then this might help. I'm offering new coaching sign ups a week free when you buy 4 weeks. I offer an online, e-coaching service. I'm your online coach and you’ll get all your project-related questions answered on a daily… Continue Reading->

15 Communication Hacks to try in 2015

Want to get ahead with your project communications this year? Here are 15 hacks to try in the coming months. The milestone tracker I use is a simple Excel spreadsheet. It lists the milestones in one column, organised by project phase. It also includes the name of the person responsible, the target date and any… Continue Reading->

10 Must-Attend Project Management Conferences for 2015

Is your diary blossoming with project management events yet? Here are a few conferences that I think it's worth packing a bag for. This is the third year that Project Zone Congress has been held in Germany and I’ve been fortunate enough to interview some of the speakers (like Kevin Baker and Wilhelm Kross) –… Continue Reading->

15 Ways to Stay Organised at Work During 2015

This post is part of a blogger link up with my friends at Elite Blogging Academy, which is a blogging course I'm currently taking (and that's my affiliate link). Start 2015 as you mean to go on with these tips for getting organised at work. Make this your most organised work year ever! Well, you… Continue Reading->

A Christmas break – see you in 2015

We're taking a break for Christmas and the end of year festivities. Normal service returns on 5 January. Best wishes to you over the holiday season and see you in 2015… Continue Reading->