How to measure real project success

Michel Thiry, MSc, PMP, FAPM, PMI Fellow
Managing Partner Valense Ltd.
Adjunct Professor University of Technology Sydney


In the last two decades project management has been applied to the delivery of more and more complex “solutions”. How is this affecting the way we measure project success? Are the traditional measures still valid? If not, what are the measures that will demonstrate how projects help organizations stay competitive?

In this presentation, I will explain how business benefits can stem from project deliverables and how they can be measured to demonstrate the contribution of single projects to organisational competitiveness. I will show why the current project measures of success are limited from a business point of view and what executives really want to see. I will use some live examples to demonstrate how some projects, successful in a traditional way, have still been business failures and how some well-known project failures have become business successes.

For this to be possible, projects must sit within a comprehensive project approach that includes programs, portfolio and governance. I will explain how such a system works and produces value for the stakeholders and benefits for the business. I will show how individual project, program, portfolio, and Program Management Office managers can increase project visibility at the executive level through sound business measures.

A Little Bit of History

When examining the origins of project management, one has to go back many thousands of years to a time when hunter-gatherers were organising hunting parties to feed their tribe, and pharaohs launched the construction of pyramids, for which they created whole towns where workers spent a significant part of their lives building these memorials. The same is true of Roman or Greek public and religious buildings, castles, and cathedrals, or the construction of the Great Wall of China, where often two or three generations of trades were involved in the building of these extensive structures. In all these examples, a group of people were working full time on a temporary endeavour around which sponsors had created a whole support organisation.

Since then, project organisations have gone through a number of transformations. Before the end of the 19th Century, the team's work on the project was fully integrated with the project's ultimate goal and one's own life goals, but today's project teams have become detached from the value creation aspect of the project. In line with the Taylorist stance adopted by corporations since the beginning of the 20th Century, “‘modern” organisations from the 40's, 50's and 60's have created specialist units and methods dedicated to managing projects (Morris, 1997). These units typically focus on the deliverable of the project, relying on the sponsor organisation to link the project outputs with the expected outcomes.

Today, project management is a standardised methodology that enables organisations to deliver tangible results in an organised way. But project management methodologies have been formalised only in the second half of the 20th Century and typically concern the delivery of single projects. Most writers and practitioners recognise that the first “‘modern”’ project was the late 1950's Polaris missile, a nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missile built during the Cold War by the Lockheed Corporation for the United States Navy. From then on, project management methods have been used to deliver tangible products, such as buildings, manufacturing processes, and defence equipment. (Morris, 1997). In 1959, Gaddis wrote the following in the Harvard Business Review: “A project is an organisation unit dedicated to the attainment of a goal—generally the successful completion of a developmental product on time, within budget, and in conformance with predetermined performance specifications.” (Gaddis, 1959, p 89). Gaddis' article was a major step in making managers aware of the focus of projects on results. But sadly, 50 years later, this view has not evolved with the expansion of project management to areas other than construction or the military, and projects are still viewed as isolated from the overall organisational purpose of the business.

In the last two decades, as the Information Technology (IT) industry adopted project management (see Note 1) and IT managers have become more prominent in the organisational hierarchy (see Note 2), project management has been applied to the delivery of more and more complex “solutions.” This situation, combined with the adoption of project management methods for a range of endeavours by governments, the financial industry, pharmaceutical research, telecom, large consultancies, and others, has led to the advent of complementary disciplines, such as complex project management, program management, and portfolio management, and the creation of PMOs (Project or Program Management Office and its derivatives) as a structure to organise the practice of project management across the organisation.


In the last 50 years, project management has evolved from a single project delivery methodology into a range of disciplines aimed at implementing an organisation's strategies, but it still needs to be accepted as an organisational capability. Project management, as it is practiced today, is at a crossroads. Either it continues growing as a technical discipline focused on single projects and their coordination at organisational level or it becomes truly integrated as an organisational capability that helps organisations become more competitive.

The “Traditional” Relationship

In the current economic climate and fast-moving context, generating value whilst remaining competitive has become a key concern for the long-term sustainability and survival of organisations. One of the key aspects of a project's success is its focus on short-term results and its capability to deliver these results within pre-set parameters. This, potentially, gives an organisation enormous flexibility to adjust quickly to emergent inputs. But organisations typically manage projects individually and often have no overarching strategy to select projects and harmonise their outputs. Traditional project measures—like the Time-Cost-Performance triangle promoted by Gaddis— limits the contribution of project management to the organization as a whole.

In recent years, more and more organisations have been turning to project management disciplines to structure and manage their change activities, but experience and research have shown that most organisations are not set up to reap maximum benefits from this “project approach.” The way that most companies integrate projects through the PMO is reminiscent of the way Middleton promoted it more than 40 years ago: “The project organization can provide the arrangement, emphasis and control necessary to counteract any weaknesses, functional or otherwise, that could impair successful completion of the project. ” (Middleton, 1967, p.75). Again, this separates the project from the organisation and very little has changed since then. In fact, “modern” project management was conceptualized at a time where scientific management and mechanistic organizations were the norm. This “modern” view is based on segregation of work and control; it relies on a sponsor to link the project outputs with the expected business outcomes and focuses project management on deliverables. Such a system creates a gap between the organisation's business objectives and the projects that support them, preventing the ‘project approach' from becoming a true business capability.

Case Study 1: Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 – Successful project, failed program

A recent example of this focus on the project rather than the business objective is Heathrow's Terminal 5. On opening day, 28th March 2008, the baggage handling ‘system' failed and almost 300 flights in and out of Heathrow Airport were cancelled during the first five days, affecting 36,584 passengers. On 30 March 2008, Jonathan Russell (2008) wrote in The Telegraph: “Never mind that delivery of the £4.3bn building, the largest single-span structure in Europe, was on time and to budget; in the public eye it will always be associated with the chaos of cancelled flights and lost luggage. ” Once it was established that Terminal 5 miserably failed some of its key stakeholders, one wonders how it could have been avoided. Russell goes on to say: “The real architects of the building, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, would no doubt argue that they fulfilled their part of the project. Heathrow's owner BAA could argue they did their job in delivering a working terminal last Thursday. ”

It has since been established that baggage handling personnel lacked the required training to operate the new system and that there was not enough personnel to handle the high influx of passengers entering the new terminal; some aggravating factors were as mundane as employees arriving for work unable to find their way to the staff car park, delays in getting staff through security screening, and staff familiarisation with the system (For full detailed analysis, see: The road signs were apparently not clear outside the terminal, and people said they were given wrong directions once inside. All the check-in desks were apparently closed when the first passengers started to arrive and from there, it went from bad to worse as the cumulative effect of technical and management mistakes led to about 23,205 bags going missing the first weekend and a number of planes leaving without luggage.

In contrast, Beijing Terminal 3, which was three times the size of Terminal 5 and built in half the time for half the cost, opened one 26 March 2008 without a flaw. Analysts say that it opened smoothly because the airport authorities understood how to orchestrate such a large, complex undertaking that involved hundreds of people (Poppendieck, 2011). Terminal 5 managers tested technical systems using simulation and staged only one rehearsal, with 2000 mock passengers, a few weeks before the terminal was due to open. These mock passengers had to wear hard hats because construction was not finished and therefore not all systems could be tested in real-life. On the other hand, in Beijing, rehearsals started two months before opening at a time when construction was completed. Managers organised three rehearsals from a few thousand to 8000 at the end of February. A week later, six local airlines started using Terminal 3 on a trial basis so that, when the terminal opened at the end of March, very few problems arose. In his testimony to the British House of Commons, union Shop Steward Iggy Vaid said that workers raised concerns with management about the systems. Management's response was to involve process engineers and all decisions were made by people who would never operate the system; the people who would actually operate the system were ignored. According to Vaid, “People were taken to a hotel and shown some sort of film or slides and told this was what it looked like. They were then given familiarisation training for three days to cover an area as big as Hyde Park. Two days out of the three were devoted to putting them into a coach to show them x, y and z, and where to enter and exit and so on, but what was missing was hands-on training. That was not sufficient at all. (HCTC, 2008, p. 5).


So, who is to blame? Or, maybe more appropriately, is anybody to blame or is it rather our project culture that is to blame? So-called “modern” project management has strived to separate projects from operations and give responsibility for business objectives to the sponsor. It has focused on short-term parameters that can be measured at the conclusion of the project, such as time, cost, and technical performance. With project management being used more and more within programs for complex and more strategic endeavours measures of success should address longer-term organisational outcomes. Terminal 5 is an example of this kind of misguided success evaluation where a project deemed successful by “modern” project standards is in fact a failed program.

Measures of Success

What is the measure of success for Heathrow airport? Is it the passengers' satisfaction with their experience, or is it something else? It is now clear that, despite BAA's tagline : “Making Every Journey Better ” and although 65 million passengers pass every year through the world's busiest international airport, passengers were not a key stakeholder in the conceptualisation and management of Heathrow airport Terminal 5. From a business point of view, passengers are the airlines' customers and BAA Ltd. rather sees them as enablers of business. One of the big differences between Heathrow Terminal 5 and Beijing Terminal 3 is that the latter focused on the experience that millions of visitors would experience coming to China in 2008 for the Olympics whilst the former is privately-owned and their focus is not on the passengers' experience, but rather on renting commercial space.

BAA Ltd. is privately owned by a consortium led by Grupo Ferrovial (46%), a Spanish firm specialising in infrastructure, and Caisse de Dépôt du Québec (26%) a government pension fund. BAA makes money from charging landing fees to airlines and increasingly from ancillary operations within those airports such as retail and property. BAA itself states: “Retail is a key part of our business activities. The money we make from retail subsidises the landing fees we charge to airlines and helps keep our airports some of the cheapest in the world. In turn, this has created a thriving airline business and gives passengers more choice. ” (BAA, 2012). It is the passengers that provide the money that fuels benefits for BAA, but they spend it only if they are given time to shop. So the journey from your car or the public transport at Heathrow is not made to be the shortest and easiest possible, but rather the longest and most difficult possible so that you will spend the most time on your feet shopping. In a 2007 article in The Economist, BAA was criticised for its predominant placement of shops rather than extra security aisles. Terminal 5 reflects this approach, to the dismay of 64,100 passengers per day.

The measure of success for Terminal 5 is not passenger enjoyment or technical efficiency, it is the revenue generated by passengers spending money in the shops. So the focus of the Terminal 5 project was on opening the restaurants and shops on time in order to generate rent revenue, rather than delaying the opening in order to resolve luggage handling issues. One could question the wisdom of this short-term revenue-driven approach, as I now know many people that will not fly BA in order to avoid Terminal 5. The House of Commons Transport Committee report specifically blamed BA and BAA for the chaos at Terminal 5 and stated that the event in March was a source of “national embarrassment” (HCTC, 2008, p.3). In sum, although the physical project was delivered on time and budget, the program is a failure from a PR and passenger point of view.

Case Study 2: Lidl Shop – Successful project, program, and project organisation

Lidl's history goes back to the 1930s, when the company was founded in Germany as a grocery wholesaler. Today, Lidl is one of the largest grocery retailers in Europe. The first Lidl stores were opened in 1973 and by the 1980s Lidl was a household name throughout Germany. During the 1990s, Lidl started to open stores outside Germany and today Lidl stores can be found in nearly every country in Europe. Since establishing themselves in the UK in 1994, they have grown consistently to a total of 580 stores today
(Source: Between 2009 and 2011 Lidl regularly beat Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury's, and other household British retail names in food quality tests.

The company's project approach also reflects a different perspective. Lidl's construction vision is “Customer orientated expansion.” Its literature states: “Our customers are the most important people in our business. Their wishes are paramount and drive the way we operate. Our aim is to fulfil customer needs at all times and to offer the perfect environment for a more pleasant and enjoyable shopping experience. ” (Lidl, 2012). And they do live by their vision.

When management decided to refurbish our local Lidl store they did not just focus on the construction of the store that was to be closed for a whole month. It was not about time and cost, although the project was delivered on time, it was about the clients and how they were going to keep their clientele, many of whom did not own a car, happy during the construction. To meet this challenge, the shop offered, for a whole month before it was due to close, four £5 coupons (one a week) to shop at their other nearest store encourage people to stay loyal to the store and apologise for the hassle. But they did not stop there, they realised that this would not be enough to encourage people who did not have a car, even if the distance to their other shop was only 1.8 miles. The store set up a shuttle service that would take any client from their shop under construction to their other shop. Two shuttles ran all day between the two shops.

For Lidl, the measure of success was to “fulfil customer needs at all times” and the construction project was just part of a sustainable business equation, not the ultimate goal. Its success across Europe reflects this approach.


As long as managers focus on the technical deliverables and parameters of projects to measure their success, projects will be seen as a delivery method and project management will be considered a cost to the business. When managers start seeing projects as part of a greater equation that delivers sustainable benefits to the business, then project management will be perceived as an organisational capability. Terminal 5 and Lidl show us though that, in order to achieve this, sponsors and portfolio managers must consider long-term measures of stakeholder benefits rather than short-term financial measures. Organisations should be restructured to create a true value chain where all the stakeholders work together towards shared long-term objectives and use project management to successfully implement these objectives.

Organisational Measures of Success

So, what are those long-term measures that will contribute to the recognition of project management as an organizational capability, and how can one demonstrate them in the real world? This is not an easy question and many scholars have tried to create models of organisational performance with mitigated success. Recently, Monique Aubry and Brian Hobbs published a paper in Project Management Journal where they acknowledge the difficulty of measuring the contribution of project management to organisational performance because organisational performance is intrinsically subjective—based on stakeholders' multiple viewpoints—and changes over time (Aubry & Hobbs, 2011). Nevertheless, organisations are looking for these elusive “objective” measures.

Success for an organisation is typically measured in shareholder value, for public organisations, or gross revenue for privately held companies. Both these measures are objective measures and are related to an organisation's capability to raise funds, either through public and private investors or banking institutions, which is currently deemed a measure of enterprise success. But how valid are they to measure the real value of an organisation in the complex and turbulent environment we live? Through the last few financial crises, we have witnessed the downside of raising funds for enterprises that were flawed because they were not sustainable and had no intrinsic value.

Case Study 3: Enterprise Data Management System

Recently, I have been involved as a consultant in the development of an enterprise-wide content management system's business case. Although the program team had clearly established that most of the benefits were not objective, nor financial, the financial sponsors required that the team produce quantitative financial data. We identified that the critical success factor (CSF) “improve content processing efficiency” could be measured financially through the “reduction of content processing time,” and that the CSF “maintain business continuity” could be measured using the financial Key Performance Indicator (KPI) “improvement in volume of content integration with other business applications.” Both measures are financial, but it is almost impossible to measure them accurately because they are based on self-assessment and therefore suspect. Although we had identified more than 20 non-financial, but meaningful and measurable KPIs, the two financial measures constituted the basis for the decision to embark on a program of more than €50m.

The argument for using financial measures is that success must be measured in an objective way and money is objective. But the question that begs to be asked is: Is there a traceable cause-effect relationship between the process and its apparent outcome? In complex systems, this is not the case and therefore managers should accept the fact that, as complexity and turbulence increase, measures of success will become more and more qualitative and subjective and social systems need to be developed alongside technical systems. For example, using time saved at work as a financial measure of success will be valid only if the employees use that time in a productive way for the business, and this is even more difficult to assess accurately. The irony is that many businesses will set up control systems to assess time “saved” that will take more time from their employees to manage than any time they have “saved” through the implementation of the new data management systems.


In short, the illusion of so called “objective” measures is alive and well in business albeit the fact that it has been shown repeatedly to be inaccurate and elusive. In order to really create value for the organization, project management should evolve from the current single project approach to an integrated project approach that includes projects, programs, portfolio and governance and most importantly includes transition activities planned and conducted jointly with operations people. This integration between the projects and operations will enable projects to allow the business to realise value by creating and implementing new capabilities that will improve its overall intrinsic and long-term value beyond short-term financial benefits.

Integrated Project Organisations (PO)

In the 1950's and 1960's, the Tavistock Institute in the UK conducted studies which found that people work most effectively when the social aspects are balanced with technical aspects (Trist & Labour, 1981). Other more recent studies found that social systems foster innovation (Jaruzelski, Dehoff & Bordia, 2005). In a research paper presented at the IRNOP VIII conference in 2007, Manon Deguire and I demonstrated that integrated project organisations can be a trigger to organizational innovation and thereby support competitive advantage in a complex and turbulent environment (Thiry & Deguire, 2007). The reason for bringing this up is that coherent social systems are a central element of good project management and are essential to organisational performance. They are a key aspect of reconciling stakeholders' multiple viewpoints and interpreting emergent inputs over time.

Case Study 4: Titanic, The Movie – Failed project, successful program

A good example of this is the movie Titanic. Production on the film began in September 1995, when director James Cameron shot footage of the actual Titanic wreck. The main filming on Titanic began on September 18, 1996 and the film was originally scheduled to open on July 2, 1997; the completed movie was effectively released on December 19, 1997, a 67% increase on estimate. But more important, it was the most expensive film ever made. Initial costs for the film were estimated at less than $75 million and when all the dust (so to speak) settled the final cost was estimated at over $200 million, a 166% increase over the original estimate. This was so alarming that panicked Fox executives suggested cutting one hour from the three-hour film. They argued the extended three-hour length would mean fewer showings as it meant that the movie could only be shown three times a day compared to a normal movie's four showings. In other words, it was a failed project: over schedule and budget and with complete loss of the sponsors' support.

Cameron, who had a long-term vision beyond the project, decided to forfeit his share of the profits as an expression to the studio of his responsibility for the overrun. Obviously, Cameron's decision was the right one since the movie stayed at number one for fifteen consecutive weeks in the United States and Canada and grossed over $1.8 billion worldwide: a return on investment (ROI) of 9:1, not counting the rights on spin-off material. On March 23, 1998, the film won eleven Oscars, matching the record for most Oscars won. What made this failed project, by traditional project standards, a business success and what was the decision process that led from failed project to successful program?

The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) defines a program as: “a temporary, flexible organisation created to coordinate, direct and oversee the implementation of a set of related projects and activities in order to deliver outcomes and benefits related to the organisation's strategic objectives.” (OCG, 2007, p.4). And this is exactly what Cameron created: He believed in his vision and shared it with his team who had made the movie's success their own. Descending to the actual Titanic wreck site made both Cameron and the film crew want “to live up to that level of reality,” as he said. He felt “a great mantle of responsibility to convey the emotional message of it – to do that part of it right, too.” (Schultz, 1997, ¶7). Titanic is a perfect example of project management from the pre-modern era, where the goals and objectives are not separated from the project's success.

Decisions were made along the way, not for the project's sake, but for the program's sake — putting ultimate benefits before compliance to cost and time. Cameron changed many scenes on the spur of the moment, some of which have become iconic. For example, Cameron explains in an interview: “The nude scene where he draws her, that was the first scene they did together. […] There's a nervousness and an energy and a hesitance in them. […]We were supposed to start with our day exteriors up on the big Titanic set. It wasn't ready for months, so we were scrambling around trying to fill in anything we could get to shoot. ” (Schultz, 1997, ¶24). In the interview, Cameron further states: “That's the hardest thing to do on a big technical film, because the more you can plan in advance, the better. And the more decisions you've made before you ever get to the set, the better. But you have to stay open to the moments of discovery. You have to keep your heart open to the magic. […]Some of those things you know from rehearsal. But you can't really get it until you're there--in the set, in the moment, in costume. ” (¶31) When asked why, at one point, he decided to save a couple of million dollars making the Titanic used for the movie 10% shorter than the original, Cameron said: “The point is that it's a couple of million dollars that could go into other places. ” (¶33) This is a good example of a program decision versus a project decision: A project management view would have been to follow the specs, a program management view was to look at the whole.

Cameron also explains that it is important for him to be a writer-director because there are three main phases in filming and they are all linked: The writing is the first draft, the shooting is the next draft, and the editing is the last draft. Having a consistent vision across all three is crucial (Steven Spielberg, another very successful filmmaker has the same approach). If the movie Titanic is considered a project and measured as a project, it is obviously a failure; but if the movie is considered as a number of projects—such as the writing; the building of the studio; the filming itself, on site of the wreckage and in the studio; the editing; and the distribution—then we have a program, and the program is successful because a program is focused on the ultimate benefits and, along the way, each decision that was made involved key stakeholders who bought into it, albeit sometimes they needed to be convinced.

Building Project Organisations

Creating and holding a clear and meaningful vision, clarifying and sharing values between the stakeholders, and being able to adapt to emergent change were three things that made Titanic a success in the end. But how can organisations evolve from the current single project approach to an integrated project approach?

Governance is a key aspect of this system. Governance is more than just control; good governance firstly requires management to set a clear vision of what is to be achieved and the best way to ensure success is to share that vision with the key stakeholders in the organisation. Secondly, management has to put in place the necessary systems and structures to achieve the vision and commit the necessary resources to realise it. Finally, it should set up simple control systems to verify that the vision is actually achieved.

We have seen in all the previous examples that a vision existed, although it was sometimes muddled and, in the case of Heathrow Terminal 5, misguided. A clear vision that is maintained throughout is essential to success. But vision is not sufficient to achieve success; in order for the system to work stakeholders must be involved. This means that management has to share their vision and values with employees and teams and listen to their input in order to create a valued vision. It should empower them to make decisions at all levels of the organisation, enabling them to progress towards the agreed objectives and react quickly to emergent inputs. Finally, controls must be simple to avoid inefficient bureaucracy and resentment against the controls; measures should be effective, really measuring what is expected to be achieved and mistakes should be accepted as part of a learning process, not a blame culture.

Reacting effectively to emergent change is an essential feature of successful organisations today. Emergent inputs cannot be predicted beforehand. Typically, planning and risk management deal with what is called the known-unknown: uncertainty that requires additional information to be understood. It is more difficult to deal with unknown-unknowns, the changes that, no matter how long and hard you looked, could not be predicted.

Project management and empowerment are the two keys to dealing with emergent change. Projects will deliver short-term outputs that can be measured, and these measures will trigger and enable adjustments for the next deliverable. The complexity and pace of the context will determine the scope of the project. The more complex and turbulent, the smaller the scope, because the golden rule of project management is that deliverables can be determined fairly accurately from the start, otherwise the project will fail. As explained in the previous paragraph, empowering people enables them to make quick decisions without fear of failure and allows them to make nimble adjustments as they become aware of new situations.

Case Study 5: Jamie Oliver, The Person and the Business – Successful projects, failed program, mitigated project organisation success

Jamie Oliver was brought up in Clavering, Essex, England. His parents ran a pub, “The Cricketers", where he used to practise in the kitchen. Oliver worked at The River Café, Fulham, as a sous-chef when he was noticed by the BBC in 1997 after making an unscripted appearance in a documentary about the restaurant. That year, his show The Naked Chef debuted and his cookbook became a number one best-seller in the UK and Oliver was invited to prepare lunch for then Prime Minister Tony Blair at No. 10 Downing Street.

In 2000, Oliver became the face of the UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's through an endorsement deal worth £2 million a year. In 2003, he was awarded an MBE. Oliver's holding company, Sweet As Candy, has made enough profit for Oliver to have been listed on The Sunday Times list of richest Britons under 30. Oliver was named the most influential person in the UK hospitality industry when he topped the inaugural 100 in May 2005.

In 2005, building on his notoriety, a new TV series, Jamie's School Dinners, was launched on Channel 4 and officially kicked off his “Feed Me Better” campaign intended to encourage British schoolchildren to eat healthy foods and cut out junk food. As a result, the British government also pledged to address the issue. Delving into politics to push for changes in nutrition resulted in people voting him as the “Most Inspiring Political Figure of 2005,” according to a Channel 4 News annual viewer poll. Finally, in December 2009, Oliver received the 2010 TED Prize for his contribution to healthy eating. (Source: Wikipedia:

Jamie, although it is not typically identified as such, has created over the years a true integrated project organisation made of a portfolio of projects and other activities: TV series, books, a website, appearances at the Chelsea Flower Show and other public events, marketing, and others, as well as operational activities that support and sustain it. Jamie has also understood that some projects need to be aligned into programs. “Feed me Better,” comprised of projects at different schools, a TV program, representations to the government, and a PR and marketing campaign, is a good example of this. Up to this point, Oliver has created a real success story with every project a success, a good management of emergent opportunities, understanding of stakeholders needs, and a real strong alignment of the vision…or is it?

In fact, although Jamie himself writes: “I can't tell you how wonderful it is to see so many people committed to feeding our children better at school, ” (Oliver, n.d.,¶5) and many head teachers, caterers, and “dinner ladies” joined him in promoting the “Feed me Better” program. when one looks at the longer term and go beyond the hype, one can see some cracks appearing. In fact one could ask: Who is really committed? How well are they committed? And, most of all, who are the real stakeholders and have those been engaged?

The whole program was initiated through Jamie Oliver's reputation and the influence he had on the Labour Government. Measures were introduced to “force” schools to adopt the scheme, including:

-   The School Lunch Grant, a dedicated pot of funding destined to helping schools and councils increase the number of children eating healthy school meals by subsidising the cost of school lunches.

-   The banishing of sweet treats, chips, and high-sugar drinks from school premises.

-   Strict nutritional guidelines for meals, introduced in English primary schools in 2008 and in secondary schools in 2009.

The problem is that, although some projects have worked in individual schools, the program is facing more and more criticism. The new government is cutting costs everywhere and refusing to be considered a “nanny” state, with which this program is associated. Children are boycotting “Jamie's meals” because they find them unpalatable, and in many schools Oliver has faced a student rebellion when he banned junk food from the school. His unconventional ingredients and meal ideas have startled the dinner ladies, increased their workload dramatically, and exceeded the allocated budget; many of the people who were promised compensation for their additional work never received it.

After the School Dinners programmes furor, my own son's school adopted the ideas. The revamped menu featured organic ingredients and healthy meals that included weird combinations and raw salads. The children felt they had no more choice of menu and often came home without having eaten because they did not like the choices offered. This put an additional burden on parents to pack a lunchbox. Gradually, take-up began to drop. As my son left the school in 2009, many schools were holding crisis meetings. Today, although many academics and intellectuals (food campaigners, the press, a segment of the general public) still support him, Jamie's campaign is in jeopardy. Has he lost touch with his real stakeholders?

One of the main issues in this campaign is that Oliver is fighting a war “…the fight continues…”. He believes that coercive measures and incentives are the only way that he will succeed. The proof of this attitude is the fact that when the measures were reduced by the present government and the campaign flagged, Oliver published an 8-point school food manifesto4. It seems obvious that what is really needed is a culture change where people will be willing to change because it is “what they really, really want” to paraphrase other English icons.

The real question is: If we agree that it is a culture change that is needed, who are his real stakeholders? Could it be school children maybe…? Jamie calls them “our children” or “the pupils” not “you.” The findings of a recent study suggest that Jamie Oliver's healthy school meals drive is having little impact on young girls whose desire is to be thin; it puts them off lunches altogether. The same study points out: “That's why it's so important that the school dining room is a place where pupils want to spend their lunchtimes. ” (Daily Mail online, 15/02/2012). My son and his friends just stopped eating at school after Jamie's lunches were introduced. Recently, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley argued that Jamie Oliver's reform of school dinners was well-intentioned, but sadly ineffective because take-up of school meals is down, suggesting that Jamie's formula for school dinner reform is not working.

It is obvious that this program could currently be deemed unsuccessful because the benefits have not been achieved; currently, British schoolchildren are not encouraged to eat healthy foods and cut out junk food. Jamie had a strong and clear vision, which has been recognised worldwide; he had also identified stakeholder values, but maybe only with the stakeholders who agreed with him. His biggest flaw was his reluctance to change his plan, his approach to emergent change. In this, he was acting as a traditional project manager; in particular, his dealing with negative stakeholders was incompatible with good change management. Oliver has often been publicly seen venting his frustration and even burst into tears when confronted with people refusing to accept his ideas of not staying faithful. “Oliver was guilty of a certain misjudgement in his campaign. The arbitrary, lecturing approach never really works, with children or adults. Outright bans, too, tend to be a mistake. ” (Prince, 2012). To show the level of resistance created by Jamie's program, on 30th November 2009 The Mail Online headlined: “Eat your heart out, Jamie Oliver! One comprehensive has hired a top chef to serve up gourmet food - and the pupils love it! ” (Prince, 2009)

I will use this other example to show what could have been done with the same vision, same stakeholders, but a different approach to the stakeholders and to emergent change.

Case Study 6: Penair School, Cornwall – Successful project organisation, program, and projects

Penair school's mission statement reads: “Penair is an open and welcoming school. Our purpose is ‘To create a caring, learning community of high quality where everyone is valued for who they are and for what they may become. ’ We constantly seek to improve what we do for students; they are our reason for being here.” Dr Barbara Vann, Headteacher. (, n.d.) In September 2008, Penair School in Cornwall decided to “throw out the old methods of using lower grade products and centrally managed suppliers and to move to the other end of the spectrum—using restaurant grade food and suppliers.” (p.2) They hired John Rankin, the 2009 winner of Radio 4's Food and Farming Awards catering prize. Barbara Vann, John Rankin and his line manager Mike Hands, in agreement with the Board of Governors, decided to take the food provision in house and deal directly with local suppliers to encourage local businesses, ensure quality supplies, and keep budgets at an acceptable level.

Rankin's approach was very different from Jamie's. He set up a gourmet serving area opposite the old school snack bar. He thus tempted the children with a menu of imaginative home cooking; they came to his “gourmet” area one by one. He insists that children call him “chef” and he in turn treats them as his customers. Mutual respect wins (Clark, 2012). Rankin's approach was different from Jamie's in that he focused, not only on quality, but also on diversity to keep the childrens' interest high. One of the things my son complained about with Jamie's meals was that they were boring; for example, after the school adopted Jamie's approach, the menu went from five types of pizzas to only Margherita with “cardboard” dough as he labelled it.

Penair School emphasises that: “offering diversity and keeping the children interested is essential and fundamental to success.” (p. 3) The key to Rankin's success seems to be that he treats the children as customers and has built a trusting relationship with them; on the other hand, Jamie's School Dinners went for arbitrary change, making heroines of the “dinner ladies” and keeping children out of the loop. “Rankin dislikes the term ‘dinner lady' or, in his case, dinner man. He still sees himself as a restaurant chef and refuses to use the word ‘canteen'. ‘I am a chef, this is a dining room and the kids are my customers, ‘ he says. And indeed they are. ‘Hello, chef,' says one of his regulars respectfully, passing in the corridor. ” (Prince, 2009, ¶10). When he took the job, Rankin firmly believed that the children would not change their eating habits unless the choice was theirs. Today, when you ask any of Rankin's customers how school food was before Rankin they make a face and say: “Ugh.” (Prince, 2009, ¶15)

But what is really telling is that the cost of a full meal is £2, all the food is fresh, yet the school kitchen comes in under budget. So both project and program are a success and stakeholders, including parents and children are backing it fully.


How is Jamie Oliver's campaign different from Titanic and James Cameron? A successful organisation, a challenging project and a visionary approach; all the ingredients seemed there. The main difference is that Cameron understood who his stakeholders were: the studios for funding and support, the crew for production, and the public for financial benefits. He gave away his profits on the movie to reassure the studios, built a strong vision to engage the crew, and created an enthralling show for the public. He was also able to accept that change happens and that you need to seize opportunities as they arise rather than stick to a pre-set plan.

So, what could Jamie Oliver have done to ensure the success of his program? As stated earlier, Jamie Oliver's business is a real project organisation, and very successful at that; however, as with many successful businesses, he switched stakeholder engagement for stakeholder persuasion, forgetting that you do not force change on people. He was also not ready to question his own strategy and plan. With the same program, albeit at a smaller scale, Rankin listened to his stakeholders (the children), and introduced change by engaging them, not forcing them. The real measure of success here was to encourage schoolchildren to eat healthy foods and cut out junk food, not to be right. Rankin proved that both the project and the program could be successful.


The first thing to remember from all these examples is that projects are not programs; projects focus on specific, well-defined deliverables, but projects will be perceived as offering real value only if their outputs are aligned through a program or portfolio. Additionally, portfolios should consider not only projects but all the activities that lead to the realisation of value: both transformation activities (programs, projects, and transition) and day-to-day activities (production and support). Real project success will be measured only through the enhanced capabilities that they provide for the business and their successful transition into the business.

As shown through the examples, integrated Project Organisations are not always in traditional project fields; many managers of these project organisations would even argue that they do not practice project management, but business as usual. For 50 years now, we have strived to distinguish projects from operations. The project management community should learn from other areas of business; fashion, music, sport, and the entertainment industry in general have practiced project management successfully for many decades and are much better integrated than many so-called project organisations. In these industries, projects are so well integrated in the business that success of a project is not distinguished from the success of the business, they are one and the same and therefore a ‘failed' project by PM standards is not necessarily seen as a failed venture if it brings organisational success.

To create performing POs, projects programs and portfolios must realise business benefits in a complex and turbulent world where the traditional corporate approach does not work anymore. We need good governance, stakeholder engagement and reactivity to emergent inputs. Project management can offer all these if it is well integrated with the business' day-to-day production and support activities.


1.   PMI's IT related membership has risen from negligible in the early 90's to almost 60% in 2011.

2.   A 2009 CIO survey confirmed that the percentage of CIOs reporting directly to CEOs jumped from 38% to 47% in 2008 for mid-sized companies and from 35% to 44% in large firms. 74% of CIOs hold a seat on their organization's business executive management committee, up from 71% in 2008 and 68% in 2007. (CIO, 2009)


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© 2012, Michel Thiry
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Marseille, France



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