The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1957/58 is largely forgotten today, yet it was a hugely important scientific endeavour that tried to understand much more about the enormous frozen continent that has such a fundamental effect on our climate. Its principal aim was to achieve what Ernest Shackleton had failed to do in 1914 – cross Antarctica from one side to the other via the South Pole. The expedition team had much better equipment than Shackleton, but even so they were relying on converted farm tractors in the far-below-zero conditions. Would they succeed where he failed?
Certainly project success goes beyond being on time, on budget, and meeting quality goals. These make up the traditional Triple Constraint or Iron Triangle. It definitely focuses on having a satisfied customer, but what ‘satisfied’ means needs a lot of consideration and consulation.
We have to consider whether we are talking about success of the project (how it was done), the output or the outcome. Ultimately the outcome is the most important.
Precise success criteria must be agreed with the customer. The foundations for success – however that is defined by the customer – are laid in the way the project is planned and set up. This underlines the importance of working closely with the customer at this early stage. Central to this are defining the quality aspects of the project (discussed in the Quality programme page) and the benefits the outcome should bring (discussed in the Fitting the strategy programme page).
Then is a general view today that the Triple Constraint is too narrow a benchmark of success and we need a more comprehensive set of criteria. In their 2007 book Reinventing project management, Shenhar and Dvir advanced a model that identifed five aspects of success they felt were essential. Their analysis was focussed on businesses, so my diagram below adapts their model slightly to encompass all types of organisation. It also introduces sustainability as criterion that is now very important, and indeed customers may want to add other success criteria that are unique to their own circumstances.
Note that some of the success criteria take much longer to assess than others. Project efficiency is pretty clear shortly after delivery of the output; how the project influences future projects may take years to become apparent.
Some people, like the management expert Tom Peters, argue that for a project to be truly great it must excite the reaction of ‘wow!’ from the customer and end-users. Certainly some outstanding projects have definitely had a wow! factor that transcends their failures against the criterion in the diagram. But does that make them successes? Both the Concorde supersonic airliner and the Boeing 747 jumbo jet definitely had the wow! factor, but the 747 was certainly a much more successful project overall.
Lowe, G. & Lewis-Jones, H. (2014). The crossing of Antarctica. London: Thames & Hudson. Shenhar, A. & Dvir, D. (2007). Reinventing project management. Boston, US: Harvard Business School Press.
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