Michael O’Brochta, the renowned creator of the CIA’s project management and system engineering training and certification program, says: “The future of successful project management involves being more successful more of the time”.
But what does this really mean? When is a project considered successful? Is it when the triple constraint (budget, scope, time) has been met? Or when doubling revenue quicker than expected? Perhaps upon achievement of complete customer satisfaction? And then, who has the final say? Is it the SEO results? The finance team? Marketing?
It’s all of them and neither. It depends on who and when you ask. The thing is, without proper constraints (or criteria), you can’t really determine the boundaries of success. At best, they’ll be vague. Even when you determine them, you still need to identify who gets to decide if the outcome has been successful or not.
To set your project up for success (a beloved phrase in all PMP literature), you should start with defining what success actually is for all stakeholders. Any criteria that serve a specific goal or aim at a certain milestone will do. But be careful to select only the most valuable criteria (we’re after setting up a boundary here, remember). A good approach is to list a number of success criteria and then — after a thorough discussion — limit the number to only those of highest priority.
For example, the success criteria for your project could be:
- Project is delivered on time
- The project cost doesn’t exceed envisioned budget
- Forecast of probable future benefits is achieved
- Project team satisfaction level is reached
- The project meets established quality and safety standards
- Training is delivered as planned and on time
- Detailed functional and technical documentation is handed off upon release
Perhaps all of those are important for your project, but they do (or should) have different priorities. Identify those highest on the list and stick with them.
Another important thing to consider is making them as descriptive as possible. This will help the evaluation process afterward. Descriptive criteria include metrics and/or targets to reach at delivery.
Reliable measurement of each of the chosen success criteria can be achieved if all stakeholders are aligned with the defined metrics, the frequency of measurement, and roles associated with it (who will perform, track and enforce the measurement process).
To achieve efficiency, the whole team should be involved in defining the measurement map (metrics – frequency – roles). This will help in setting up the right expectations with all stakeholders upfront and, eventually, identify areas to exceed them during the project execution.
Once an agreement is reached on success criteria of the highest importance, measurement metrics, and frequency, the next step is to document and share them with everyone in the team. It is crucial to get everyone to agree with the list as defined. Otherwise, the success boundaries will become flexible and measurement will not be effective, or worse — it could provide misleading results.
In some cases (legacy systems, projects that replace existing ones), it’s advisable to get an image of the current state of the system that is being enhanced. This will allow the team to make a comparison each time criteria is measured, usually at sprint reviews or working increment demonstrations. It will also help get a more conclusive result on the measurements.
Once you have the success criteria identified, agreed upon, and documented, you don’t just leave them there. Tracking success should be part of the project management team’s role and has to be regularly evaluated during the project risk assessment.
Because success criteria directly relate to project risks, it is highly advisable to never change the list of criteria, defined and agreed upon during the beginning of the project. Otherwise, this could affect the direction of the project and success might get harder to reach.
The agile nature of IT projects provides a vast variety of management approaches and models – Scrum, the Lean Startup, Jobs To Be Done, the Iron Triangle (the triple constraint) and many more. Yet a common problem with all of them is how to ensure the project is perceived as successful by all stakeholders in the end. Using the project’s success path and aligning everyone with it makes this task achievable.
To recap, here are some important steps to take to pave the way for a fruitful project:
- Define what success means for the project and focus on the most important criteria.
- Apply metrics and targets to evaluate each of the chosen criteria. Define measurement frequency.
- Document the chosen success criteria and metrics. Get everyone to agree with them.
- Create an image of the current state of the system before the project begins.
- Track project progress and monitor the success metrics continuously.
It’s no secret that it’s easier to manage a project when you know where the focus and most efforts should go. The same goes for success. It is not a mystical category somehow assigned to certain undertakings but a result of precise planning, measurement, and oversight.