How can I ensure my project is a success?

If you have responsibility for all or part of a project, this is a natural question. And it’s a good one to consider too, as evidence shows that project success is not as easy as you might hope.


And what is success anyway?


I’ve spent over 25 years working on business change projects in a variety of roles and my view is that a successful project is one where the project

  • Meets its objectives,

  • AND goes smoothly for the people involved - you, your team, and your stakeholders.

So…

  • Why both?

  • How likely is it to get both? and

  • How can you maximise your chances of getting both?



Why both?


Meeting objectives is the classic measure of project success. But how you define those objectives will determine the real value you get from your project investment…which I’ll come onto later.


But why is it also so important to have the process of delivering a project go well for all those involved?


Well...


We live in a constantly changing world. If we want to not only survive but thrive, we need to be ready, willing, and able to change over and over again. We need to be able to implement change well and often.


As a business, the vehicle for implementing change is generally a project and if people have a bad time on a project, they are going to be less likely to want to do another one. They’ll be more resistant, and this can ultimately impact the organisation’s ability to adapt as it needs to.


Also, if the business links their bad experience to your project leadership, your relationship will be damaged. The business will be reluctant to do another project with you and may warn others off too.


This isn’t ideal if you’re the service organisation supporting the business (e.g. consulting firm or IT department).


It’s important that everyone involved comes away with the appetite to go again.



How likely is it that you’ll get both?


Well, the odds aren’t great to be honest. Unfortunately, getting both of those things is rare. And more often you get neither. Projects don't deliver on objectives, and people end up stressed out.


Projects don’t run smoothly


When I talk to business leaders, I get a consistent message…they’ve all found putting in new technology to be a bit of a nightmare!


One global head of HR told me that


“Putting in our new HR system was possibly the most stressful thing me and my team have ever done”


…(which was surprising given all the other big challenges I know he had faced in his career). And he made it quite clear that it was not an experience he wanted to repeat!


I have plenty of my own experience to back this up too and my coaching skills have had to play a big part in the project roles I've had.


Projects are challenging environments and can have a serious impact on the wellbeing of the those involved. I’ve known people leave projects and even the organisations they work for through stress created by working on a project.



Projects don’t meet their objectives


There are all sorts of statistics in all sorts of places that cover how many projects

  • Fail outright,

  • Don't meet objectives, or

  • Don't result in lasting change.


My 'go to' source is the Project Management Institute.


They have been doing a "Pulse of the Profession" survey every year since 2006. It includes feedback and insights from project, programme, and portfolio managers, as well as analysis of third-party data.


The survey report in 2020 showed

  • 11 to 21% of projects failed outright, and

  • 21 to 64% fail to meet their objectives,

The figures haven't really changed that much over the last 5 years.


2021 showed some improved numbers, but the institute recognise that this may have been due to many planned projects being put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.


The range of results shows the impact project management maturity has on project success.


But that means that even with good project management, at least 1 in 5 projects still regularly fail to meet objectives.


So, something else is needed to maximise the chances of success.


It’s also worth noting that before 2017, the Project Management Institute figures only measured success by looking at how the project performed against traditional project measures of scope, time, and cost. Since 2017, 'meeting objectives' has considered the level of benefits realised as well, which is key.


Without taking that into account, any figures for success are likely to be over inflated, as can easily be the case with technology projects.


Even though 'meeting objectives' should be measured with reference to benefits realisation (which is normally completed after the project has finished), the success of technology projects is often measured at the solution go-live date, or just beyond.



If the solution goes live and survives a short stabilisation period (with perhaps some emergency technology bug fixes), it’s deemed a success.


BUT if success is measured at this point, there's still a chance that

  • the business never really embeds the change fully,

  • the changes don’t stick,

  • people creep back to their old ways of working, or

  • people never really use the technology in the way, or to the extent that, it was envisaged at go live (or when planning the business case).

The other thing that a go live objective can mask is the curse of the 'minimum viable product'.


You may set out with expectations for what will be delivered at go live, but as the project deadline looms, it can become impossible to deliver what was anticipated and the quality side of the time, cost, quality constraints of the project triangle is squeezed.


This means going live with a sub-optimal solution, a higher level of business workarounds and possibly a long list of enhancement requests that need more investment and continued activity to resolve and implement.