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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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