Project Management Institute

The secret of (defining) success


Peer to Peer Charles Derby and Ofer Zwikael, PhD, PMP, discuss how project managers should—and shouldn't—measure success on their project


Ofer Zwikael, PhD, PMP: Traditional project management training focuses on achieving the triple constraint—time, budget and scope. This approach is insufficient to lead to project success, as many projects meet these constraints but do not yield anything the funder considers to be an acceptable return on investment.

For example, the Los Angeles subway system in California, USA, was ahead of schedule and on budget, and met all its operational, safety and service goals. Yet the project, at one point, was declared a failure because residents refused to leave their cars at home and use the subway for their transportation needs.

Charles Derby: There is always the classic division of “doing things right” and “doing the right things.” The true success of a project depends on whether the main objectives are met, which can only occur if the right objectives and deliverables were specified.


Charles Derby is a principal customer engineer at GlobalFoundries, a semiconductor foundry in Dresden, Germany.


Ofer Zwikael, PhD, PMP, is a deputy director, Research School of Management, Australia National University (ANU), in Canberra, Australia. He co-authored Project Management for the Creation of Organisational Value.

Project managers have to understand the “why,” not just the “what,” “when” and “how much.” You need input from the people affected by the project or those who will be using whatever you are producing. You have to pull information out of them to find out the context of the project to make sure it is scoped correctly.

Dr. Zwikael: It's important to divide project success accountabilities amongst the project funder, the project owner and the project manager. Project managers are focused on managing the team and daily activities, and often finish their role on the project immediately after delivery. You also need a person who is accountable for realizing benefits following delivery.

Although project management success should be judged by the project manager's ability to meet the triple constraint, the project owner's success is determined by the extent to which benefits have been realized, while funders look at the success of their investment in the project.

While the project manager is not accountable for benefits, he or she should be aware of them and support the owner in realizing them. For that reason, project managers should be involved in the initiation phase of projects when benefits are set. During project execution, they should work with the owner and steering committee to ensure not only that the project is completed on time and budget, but also that project outputs are fit for utilization by customers.


Source: PMI's 2012 Pulse of the Profession Benefits Realization In-Depth Report

Mr. Derby: The trouble with focusing too much on benefits realization is that a project may not necessarily provide measurable benefits. A project provides change, and whether that change is bene-ficial is something to be determined. For example, a project could be launched to help an organization comply with new legal regulations. In that case, the only benefit is they get to stay in business.

What's most important is ensuring you have the correct targets. Then you can start talking about whether you completed the project on time and within budget. If targets aren't correct, you could deliver ahead of time, but nobody cares.

Ultimately, it is the sponsor's responsibility to judge these things. But project managers should ask questions of the sponsor during the planning phase about intended benefits and how they relate to organizational goals, and put the sponsor on the spot to make sure he or she is thinking about the right topics.

Dr. Zwikael: Sequence is important when you're talking about benefits realization. Benefits should be set and their realization accepted as the purpose of a new project, rather than treated as the hopeful result of delivering its committed outputs. In many companies, benefit setting is treated as an exercise in which managers try to identify benefits that may arise from the utilization of outputs they are already committed to. The process should begin with setting target benefits for a project and only then identify the best outputs that can support their realization.

Mr. Derby: What I have found effective is to define project objectives in a measurable way. For example, “Widget X is designed, tested and built by date Y.” That is a clear, measurable statement. Then you have built-in metrics in the project's definition.

Dr. Zwikael: In addition to measurability, other target benefits characteristics should be:

Important: A benefit has to be important to the funder if it is worth targeting.

Timely: If a benefit can be detected only after an “unworkably long” period of time, it is not suited to targeting.

Plausible: If the causal linkage between the project's outputs and the target benefit is weak, then it fails the plausibility test.

Mr. Derby: Unfortunately, different stakeholders often have different measures for success. But the project manager is in the perfect position to negotiate among stakeholders and drive consensus. He or she can say, “I'm just the project manager. It looks like we have three different views. Can we come to some agreement on this?” That's usually a good way to rein in disagreements. PM

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