Perspectives on research and case studies of primary factors for project success


Clemith J. Houston, Jr., PhD, CISSP, PMP

University of Colorado–Boulder

There exists a significant amount of research regarding the identification of the leading factors that contribute to project success in organizations. This paper provides a summary of some of those studies and highlights those variables that were found to be most common. The identification of the relationship between dependent variables, such as project success and independent and moderating variables including but not limited to leadership, communications, team comptencies, role identification and management, project management office maturity, project manager training, stakeholder involvement, risk management, benefits realization management, as well as adherence to traditional constraints, provides insights into where organizations should focus their efforts to ensure and sustain project success.


Organizations are using project management as a strategic capability and enabler to achieve goals and objectives. The degree to which organizations are successful in obtaining and realizing goals and objectives is influenced by multiple factors, including project management maturity, organizational readiness, culture, industry, training, stakeholder commitment and other factors. A multitude of studies seek to discover and identify leading critical success factors that will have the greatest impact on project success. These studies bring significant value to both the practitioner and researcher in light of the significant number of project failures in comparison to project successes. Understanding these relationships and which factors promote project success is valuable.

This paper will highlight some of the research regarding identifying those factors that promote project success, as well as experiences at one organization based upon a sampling of actual project endeavors.

Review of Research and Findings Focused on the Project Success Contributors

Research efforts to identify the sources of project success and understand what concepts and factors are leading contributors has been undertaken for many years. Jugdev and Müller (2005) identified and documented four distinct time periods in their research, beginning with what they classified as period one during the 1960s to 1980s that focused on project implementation and handover with success measured in subjective and objective ways as seen through the lens of different people, to period two from the 1980s to 1990s that focused on critical success factor lists, to period three from the 1990s to the 2000s incorporating the emergence of integrated frameworks, to period four as the 21st century emerged with a focus on strategic project management. These authors concluded that project success in recent years required a holistic view, often combining the perspectives gained from each of the time periods they reviewed. This paper will focus primarily on research findings during period four, from 2000 to the present.

Earlier research, including that of Belout and Gauvreau (2004), sought to establish the impact of human resource management or personnel on project success. Their results established a linkage between the two; however, it was deemed insignificant. They did confirm that relationships between independent variables and project success varied according to the life cycle stage. Also, they determined that variants of project structures such as functional, project-based and matrix, as well as management support and troubleshooting variables, were significantly correlated with success. The sector in which project management occurs, such as information technology, engineering, construction or other sectors, was also identified as a moderating variable on the relationship between the independent variables and success. As they relate to the linkage between what was defined as the personnel impact and project success, these findings would appear to conflict with a subsequent study by Geoghegan and Dulewicz (2008), which sought to explore the relationship between a project manager's leadership competencies and project success. In this research, eight separate leadership dimensions were found to be statistically significantly related to what they defined as performance. Geoghegan and Dulewicz sought to identify which specific dimensions of leadership contributed to successful projects. They grouped leadership dimensions into three areas based upon an earlier foundation by Dulewicz and Higgs (2005), including EQ or emotional skill, MQ or managerial competency and IQ or intellectual aptitude. Their findings were that MQ leadership dimensions contributed most to a successful project and can be summarized as stating that a significant relationship exists between managerial competencies and project success. These competencies would include attributes such as self-awareness, sensitivity, influencing and motivation. Assuming there is a relationship between project management skills defined in the human resources management knowledge area within the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition and what constitutes leadership skills, there exists some disconnect between the aforementioned earlier study by Belout and Gauvreau (2003) and that of Geoghegan and Dulewicz.

The intensity of good project management practices influences project success according to Fortune and White (2006). They developed a formal systems model that incorporated multiple critical factors based upon a review of their occurrence in relevant publications to determine which ones were most prevalent. They were able to use this model to distinguish between what they classified as a successful and an unsuccessful project. Earlier work by Cooke-Davies (2002) used empirical research from more than 70 large multinational or national organizations to identify, based on a survey, which 12 factors were critical to project success. These factors included practices and processes relating to risk management, documentation, scope management, benefits delivery management, metrics management, project duration and learning from prior projects and experiences.

A more recent study by Thi and Swierczek (2010) assessed which key project factors contributed to project performance, as defined as meeting cost, time, technical performance and customer satisfaction. This was a region-specific study executed in Vietnam. However, the results should be capable of being generalized. The results identified groups of factors—including manager competencies, member competencies and external stability—that had a significant positive relationship with the success criteria above that they defined. Also, Thi and Swierczek concluded that what they classified as the completion and implementation stages were positively related to project success. Their study evaluated the relationship between external stability, manager competencies, team member competencies and organization support as independent variables, with project performance as the dependent variable and project characteristics as moderating variables. Project characteristics included variables such as project size, project value, project type and life cycle stage as some examples. Their study suggests there is value in developing competencies through training of the project manager and project team. The study supports earlier research by White and Fortune (2002) and has common sense and practical appeal.

Other authors have worked to identify specific relationships between project success and contributing factors, including the use of project management practices. Papke-Shields, Beise and Quan (2010) found that the use of project management practices, such as those documented and promoted as best practices from the various knowledge areas within the PMBOK® Guide, do in fact relate to project success. Actions related to scope management, development of a project deliverable list, human resources management, communications, stakeholder analysis and risk analysis were cited as practices that influenced project success.

Xu and He (2008) completed a study investigating the impact of team attitude and behavior on information systems (IS) project success. Their research framework was based upon the influence of goal commitment on teamwork quality and the influence of teamwork quality and goal commitment on IS project success. Their study results indicated that both goal commitment (regarded as team attitude) and teamwork quality (regarded as team behavior) have a significantly positive relationship with IS project success. Both direct and indirect positive relationships between goal commitment and IS project success revealed the importance of team attitude; however, these results are slightly diminished due to the researchers’ acknowledgement of the potential for underrepresentation with the regard to the total number of IS-related projects in their study, which would limit its generalization.

An area that has garnered significant attention and research not only in the area of project management but also in the broader arena of information technology (IT), technology management, and multiple disciplines is risk management. Researchers de Bakker, Boonstra, and Wortmann (2011) explored the relationship between risk management and project success, with the latter defined as meeting parameters such as time, money and requirements as established in the project plan. Risk management was identified in Cooke-Davies's (2002) research as one of the influencers on risk management and supports the continued focus. Risk management in the study by deBakker, Boonstra and Wortman represented actions such as planning, identification, registration, analysis and others serving as either instrumental or communicative actions that could impact the success of the project. Their study concluded that project risk management was an instrumental action based on rational problem solving and had a limited positive effect on success in IS/IT projects. Their findings suggest that risk management actions not only lead to subsequent actions but also have effects on risk perception and that changes in perception influence the relationship between risk management and project success. The process they modeled depicted how risk management practices served as enablers to creating perceptions, preparing for action, increasing the effectiveness of action and synchronizing perceptions, with each activity having the capability to influence positively project success. As with generally all studies, there are limitations to the results and the ability to generalize the findings; however, these findings provide additional insight into factors that influence project success.

In an additional study, researchers from the EBS Business School, Strascheg Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship investigated how personal and organizational competencies impact project management outcomes, in addition to other research objectives involving project management requirements, organizational and personal competencies and cultural issues relevant to project management (EBS Business School, 2010). Their report provided findings from a survey with 449 respondents from 49 countries across a range of industries and project types. The rationale for their study was that project management success relied not only on satisfying traditional elements and constraints such as scope, time and cost but also soft elements such as stakeholder satisfaction. They also considered national and cultural influences as moderating factors upon project management success. Their research model included the relationship between individual and organizational competencies upon project success. Examples of individual competencies included perceived leadership behavior and project experience, while organizational competencies included components such as organizational commitment, senior management support, working atmosphere or trust, resources, organizational support via a Project Management Office (PMO) and standardization. Project success was described as the achievement of traditional or “iron triangle” constraints and stakeholder satisfaction with project outcomes and process. Findings from the study produced the following recommendations:

  • Companies must become aware of the importance of project management;
  • A standardized project management method should be established;
  • Standardized project management must be adapted to the specific needs of the company;
  • Lessons learned should be part of this standardized project management; and
  • Project managers should, in particular, be trained in leadership skills.

In another study, researchers Aronson, Shenhar, and Patanakul (2013) posited that leader-building activities affect employees’ emotions, attitudes and behavioral norms that are focused on expected project outcomes, including what was termed project spirit. Managing those items that drive project spirit can positively impact project performance and success. They provided multiple examples of project success, including common expectations regarding scope, cost and time, but also customer satisfaction, financial returns, innovation results and others. They provided quantitative and qualitative support for a model in which project leader–building activities influenced and implemented a project vision and artifacts, as well as positively impacted participants’ emotions, attitudes and behavioral norms that are focused on project outcomes or project spirit. As a result, project spirit affected participant behavior and performance that impacted project success.

Mir and Pinnington (2014) performed a research study investigating the relationship between project manager performance and project success in UAE project-based organizations. Their findings were consistent with earlier research that found a positive relationship between project management performance and project success. The impact of project management on the project team was a leading indicator, with project management key performance indicators (KPIs) also impacting project success, along with life cycle management process and the project manager staff. A summary recommendation from their study is that project-based organizations should invest in a project management performance framework to enhance the probability of achieving project success.

In a more recent study, researchers de Carvalho, Patah and de Souza Bido (2015) investigated the relationship between project management skills, training and business environment with that of project success. Their study involved samples of projects from multiple industries, including energy, healthcare, manufacturing, IT, telecommunications and other sectors. Their findings established that national environment was a key influence on project performance, with a lesser impact from project management capabilities and training, except schedule success. This study would appear to conflict with the findings from Mir and Pennington (2014).

Serrador and Turner (2015) presented their findings of a study focused on determining the relationship between project success and project efficiency. Examples of project success in their research included meeting timeline goals, meeting budget goals, and meeting scope and requirements goals. The achievements of these goals could be assessed and measured by stakeholders such as the sponsor, project team members, clients and end users. These goals served as the dependent variables impacted upon by the concept of project efficiency. These researchers employed a survey of 1,386 projects in which project efficiency was found to correlate moderately strongly to overall project success, with a correlation of 0.6 and R2 of 0.36. Therefore, efficiency through their analysis was shown to be neither the only aspect of project success nor an aspect of project success that may be dismissed or ignored.

Common Themes and Factors from Research and Case Studies

The studies and research presented in the previous section represent some of the work that has been completed in search of leading factors to project success. What can be derived from these studies is that there has been some level of evolution in studies over time and that some common themes and factors have persisted. There were also some contradictions in the studies, as some researchers identified factors that were significant factors based upon their findings while others did not. Also, the list of factors themselves is long and varied. Exhibit 1 depicts some of the common factors.


Exhibit 1: Success factors for projects from research and case studies.

What can be gleaned from this survey of research findings is that the actions of the project team, especially those leading the effort, is key and that the processes and practices they utilize are key factors.

Why This Is Important

The findings from the research studies previously discussed, as well as the insights from the specific experiences of the University of Colorado in the next section, provide ample support for the importance of factors beyond traditional project constraints as significant influencers to project success. Nonetheless, the impact of the traditional constraints and factors cannot be underestimated and should be considered expected or required contributors. Where the attention should be focused are on activities such as leader-building activities, risk management, project management skills, training, environmental context, project manager skills, relationship and expectations management, stakeholder satisfaction and individual and organizational competencies.

In a study of 42 IT projects, McManus and Wood-Harper (2007) found that technical causal factors accounted for 35% of the project failure rate. The remaining 65% were because of what they termed management causal factors or, in other words, people issues (Levasseur, 2010). In more recent years, based on a study by the Project Management Institute, the percentage of projects meeting their goals, which was consistent with achieving project success, has remained flat over the 2011–2015 time period and averaged around 63%, indicative of some level of project failure at slightly under 40% (Project Management Institute, 2015). These findings combined speak to where the majority of the issues with project challenges arise and indicate that we have room for improvement in achieving a greater project success rate. An earlier study concluded that the complexity of IS project management suggests that leadership style is out of alignment, and that change becomes difficult to achieve and failure rates rise in global IT projects (Shore, 2005). Once again, this speaks to causes for project failure beyond issues with managing traditional constraints. More recent data depict no material improvement. Based upon research by the Standish Group (2014), the success rate was only 16.2%, while challenged projects accounted for 52.7% and impaired or cancelled projects accounted for 31.1%. According to a 2012 McKinsey/Oxford study, half of IT projects with budgets of over $15 million run 45% over budget, are 7% behind schedule and deliver 56% less functionality than predicted (Bloch, Blumberg, & Laartz, 2012). Understanding why this is occurring is important.

Review, Analysis and Findings of Experience at the University of Colorado

A sampling of projects executed by the Project Management Office at the University of Colorado–Boulder Office of Information Technology provides data on what constituted project success. Using the artifacts of lessons learned from five specific and selected projects executed over 2011 through 2014 from a large portfolio, there was an opportunity to identify what actions were most often noted as providing project success with these endeavors. Assuming that these items are reasonably generic and not specific to the environment at the University of Colorado–Boulder, this list is a candidate prescription for other organizations concerned with ensuring project success and building and maintaining the components that are most influential and critical. The review included lessons learned artifacts and project charters and their project success criteria for these five projects selected from a population of more than 80 projects. Information regarding these is included in this paper as representative examples. The project charter template used at the University of Colorado–Boulder includes content categories for capturing the customer benefit and project success criteria. Lessons learned are done at project closure using a standard template. The information that follows is drawn from those artifacts.

Project Name: Computing Center Data Center Cisco 6513 Router Replacement Project

Project Description:

For many years, a single Cisco 6513 chassis acting as a Layer 2 switch and Layer 3 routers provided the computing center's data Center network connectivity. This chassis platform, including its internal components, was over ten years old and needed to be replaced with a newer platform for reliability and growth capacity for supporting application server connections within the data center. The Cisco 6513 chassis would be replaced with a new Nexus 7000 chassis data center concentric switch platform, including internal components. This new chassis was already owned by the university and was awaiting deployment. A previously completed project installed a first Nexus 7000 chassis in the data center, which would partner with this new chassis to provide redundant network connections for servers and the growth capacity required by this facility. Two cutover approaches were considered: a planned full-service outage for a flash cutover or a phased cutover that would include additional equipment costs.

Customer Benefits:

  • Increased capacity,
  • Additional redundancy,
  • Additional reliability, and
  • Future virtualization across geographically dispersed data centers.

Project Success Criteria:

  • No unplanned network downtime during cutover windows.
  • Both Nexus 7000 platforms located in the computing center's data center are linked in a high-availability architecture.
  • Required 1-gigabit and 10-gigabit growth capacity are available for future customer needs.
  • Functioning monitoring and alerting is in place for ongoing operational support.
  • Servers are dual-connected across both Nexus 7000 platforms for redundancy.

Lesson Learned:

  • Having a dedicated communications lead provided value.
  • Having one master change request was very beneficial.
  • Effectively communicating the nature of the project including what the goal of the project was to be, how it would be implemented, providing detailed information that was clear, precise and addressed at the appropriate level.
  • Having the project prioritized as a high-priority project, which resulted in a dedicated project manager being assigned provided value to coordinating the communication efforts between the team, stakeholders and the communications lead.
  • Clear identification of roles and responsibilities and contact information added to virtually no negative issues with customers or senior management.

Insights Related to Project Success:

A review of the lessons learned indicates that contributors to success were communication, change management, coordination and establishment of roles of responsibilities.

Project Name: GSDAS (Geographically Separate Directory and Authentication Services)

Project Description:

The GSDAS project sought to mitigate the risk of rendering critical services unavailable during an incident or disaster that would cause an outage to the authentication and mail routing systems in the computing center's data center. Directory services provided authentication, which is the gateway to all critical Office of Information Technology (OIT) applications. Without the ability for users and administrators to log into applications and systems, the application availability would be greatly reduced or made completely unavailable. Directory services also provided mail routing, which enables inbound and outbound email communication. Other directory services, including people search, would be enhanced as well.

Customer Benefits:

A benefit was higher availability of all services that utilize campus authentication systems. This would also enhance service availability for future projects that would also rely on campus directory and authentication systems.

Project Success Criteria:

During a test of a catastrophic failure, the LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) and Shibboleth (or single sign-on and federation) services successfully fail-over to another geographic location and services are able to function to an agreed-upon level of performance. In case there is a disaster, some services may be functioning, but authentication, mail routing or directory searches may be slower.

Lessons Learned:

  • The collaboration between the different groups worked very well.
  • The team worked together after an initial attempt to ensure that we were successful the next time.

Insights Related to Project Success:

Collaboration and teamwork were important. The initial attempt at implementation had some unforeseen negative customer impacts, which made future communication and project management critical.

Project Name: Mail Routing Transition

Project Description:

The project purpose was to transition outbound mail routing from the Mirapoint to IronPort infrastructure. The Mirapoint infrastructure would reach the end of extended support provided by Mirapoint on April 30, 2013. Services supported on this infrastructure, including outbound mail routing, needed to move to the supported infrastructure. This reflected the termination date of April 30, 2013, for the extended support contract. This transition produced a change in the mail message header, and that impact needed to be understood, managed and communicated as part of the transition. OIT currently used both the display name in the LDAP directory and the email address to rewrite content to configure outbound email on behalf of mail clients. The transition to the Ironport infrastructure would only support management of one of these attributes, and that would be the email address rewrite only. The display name for the email client would be what is set at the mail client of the user.

Project Success Criteria:

Outbound mail routing would function as it does today and be managed on the IronPort infrastructure

Lessons Learned:

When issues were identified after the changes, we quickly contacted customers to consult with them and inform them of the appropriate configuration.

Insights Related to Project Success:

Customer engagement was critical to the success of the project.

Project Name: IdM De-provisioning Process

Project Description:

De-provision account access for unaffiliated parties no longer entitled to those accounts through the appropriate source system(s). IdM (the central campus identity management service) was authoritative for provisioning of LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol), email services and AD (Active Directory); consequently de-provisioning should be executed through IdM. De-provisioning was to be an automated functionality within IdM, but IdM was placed into service without completing this functionality. The collapse of the Sun IdM product blocked the further pursuit of this requirement. As a result, this project sought to reinstate manual de-provisioning both one time and as a template for ongoing practice until de-provisioning can be automated in the next generation of IdM services. De-provisioning is prerequisite to CULink decommissioning, Office 365 and Google, developing OIM (next generation of IdM) and maintenance of our current LDAP directories and AD/Exchange environments. This project sought to implement full de-provisioning appropriately at the source and removes the necessity of doing multiple independent de-provisioning efforts focused on specific services.

Project Success Criteria:

  • A reduction in Exchange accounts, LDAP entries and Kerberos accounts representing a substantial percentage of pre-project unaffiliated accounts would be observable through the official source records in IdM, and the IdM provisioned services and directories.
  • Former students within the previous five calendar years would still have accounts and be identifiable as former students.
  • A timely completion of the work would facilitate a reduced obligation to provision unnecessary Google accounts. The fewer unnecessary Google accounts that are provisioned, the higher the success ratio.

Lessons Learned:

  • Documentation, notification and distribution.
  • Remote participation.
  • Coordination and communication between the various departments during customer notifications.

Insights Related to Project Success:

Communication, documentation of project details, engaging participants and project management coordination were critical enablers of success.

Project Name: ServiceNow Phase 1

Project Description:

The purpose of this project was to move remaining partners off of the OIT Supportworks (an incident management and IT ticketing application) service so it could be retired. The preferred action was to transition these partners onto OIT's ServiceNow service, though this may not be possible in some cases, and alternate actions will have to be taken to move them off Supportworks.

Customer Benefits:

  • Supportworks was no longer supported, and partners were taking a lot of risk by running key service operations on an unsupported platform.
  • Transitioning to ServiceNow would better integrate our partners with OIT and put our partners on a platform that is being actively developed.

Project Success Criteria:

  • Move partners onto ServiceNow, and
  • Retire Supportworks.

Lessons Learned:

  • Perseverance.
  • There were talented people on the project and enthusiasm was high for most of the effort.
  • We learned many good lessons about what to do and not to do when rolling out a culturally challenging new service.

Insights Related to Project Success:

Team effort and the quality of project team resources and change management were key enablers to project success.

Summary of the University of Colorado–Boulder Experience

Key insights from this sample of completed projects that occurred under the management of the University of Colorado–Boulder Office of Information Technology Project Management Office is that sole achievement of the traditional constraints of scope, time and quality were not only insufficient in achieving project success but from a stakeholder and customer perspective were not as significant as other factors. This highlights the importance of project management implementation and execution factors beyond the traditional triangle as keys to success. Activities in support of fostering, managing or optimizing communications, change management, team collaboration, role establishment and management and relationship management were prevalent themes. See Exhibit 2 for a summary of these.


Exhibit 2: Success factors from University of Colorado–Boulder project examples

Organizations that pursue or have implemented a benefits realization program can position themselves to attain more project success as a result of improved tracking of organizational and stakeholder benefits that reflect project success. Benefits realization management is an enabler for achieving project outcomes as identified in the project charter and original business case (Project Management Institute, 2015). Research in this area has identified where project success—described as meeting original goals or business intent and finishing the project on time and within budget—is achieved at a greater relative rate in those organizations that have high benefits realization maturity as compared to those with low benefits realization maturity. Projects are the means by which changes and new capabilities in organizations are initiated, executed and realized. The degree to which new or improved services, programs or solutions are implemented by the project team and then received by customers and users is also a significant measure of project success.

Areas for Further Research

In support of the importance of benefits realization management, it would be useful to assess the post-implementation or full life cycle benefits of the cited University of Colorado project examples and build a model that measured the relationship between the project outcomes and the measured benefits after the project was closed. Exploring whether the domain area associated with the project reflected a significant relationship with project success and benefits would also be of research value.


As evidenced by both the literature and research findings, as well as the experiences at the University of Colorado–Boulder, project success is significantly influenced by project and change management capabilities, leader and team member competencies, collaboration, communication, relatoniships, participant attitudes and teamwork-related activities. A focus traditional constraints and their achievement alone is insufficient for ensuring project success.

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© 2015, Clemith J. Houston, Jr.
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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