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Project success criteria: how do you define success?

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Failing projects

Success criteria are the standards by which the project will be judged to have been successful in the eyes of the stakeholders. It is these that must be tracked to be able to answer the question of whether your project has delivered any benefits.

There are 2 types of success criteria:

  • Project: things related to the professional job of running the project eg produce and gain sign off for project initiation document.
  • Deliverables: things delivered as a result of the project eg distribute 3,000 educational leaflets to schools in our county.

The first type is related to the management of the project, which can be referred to in your regular project reports (my training course about project reporting can give you more advice and project status report templates) or at the post-project review when the work is complete. These help focus the mind on the ‘business’ of project management and relate to doing the project right, completing what you set out to achieve within the defined parameters.

The second type is strongly linked to the business case and the rationale behind doing the project. These are deliverable-based success criteria and relate to what it is the project has achieved. The sponsor has engaged the project team with the objective of delivering something that will benefit him or her and that is what should be tracked.

Photo of lightbulbProject 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 is over you should be able to say with certainty whether or not, and to what extent, you met the criteria. The true business benefits, on the other hand, may 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.’ Tracking the benefits will make certain that the business-as-usual team will be aware when the costs start to increase again – and be able to find out who replaced a dead bulb with a non-efficient one.

A baseline of current performance should be taken before or in the early stages of the project. It should record the current performance against the success criteria before the project is delivered. This baseline gives the business-as-usual team something to compare against. It is great knowing that you are now calling back customers within 30 minutes, but if you do not know what the situation was before the project was implemented it is impossible to judge if things are better now. The baseline allows clear identification of performance differences in the post-project world. Be sure to use the same calculations and tracking method to establish the baseline as you plan to do for the ongoing measurement, otherwise you risk comparing apples to pears.

Success criteria can be measured in two ways:

  • Discrete: Yes/No (we did or did not do something) eg 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) eg Improve customer satisfaction scores to between 75 per cent and 100 per cent, increase revenue by 8-10 per cent, rebrand 20 offices within Quarter 4.

Continuous success criteria always include the possibility of being translated into discrete targets. If customer satisfaction was 82 per cent in March, and the target was 75 per cent, you reached the target. If it was 74 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 April, that’s fantastic. But you cannot tell from a yes/no measurement if it was better or worse than March.

Next time: so why do projects fail?

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3 comments… add one

  • Thomas Cutting 1/10/2007, 8:46 pm

    Great series! I am helping revitalize a PMO and one of the first big discussions on defining documents was Critical Success Factors. It isn’t about what you need to make your project successful. Its about how people will recognize that the project was successful.

    BTW… If you need ideas on how NOT to restructure a failing project…

  • Elizabeth 7/10/2007, 1:04 pm

    Thanks for this link Thomas!

  • Paul Rasmussen 6/02/2009, 2:15 am

    I have often found that it is trying to get the success criteria for a project right is very important in the determining the overall success of the project.

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