Project success, just perception!


I’ve just had an interesting discussion today concerning project success. In particular around how success is perceived by the various stakeholders of the project.

We all think we know what success is (and in simple situations like an Olympic event, where there is only one first place, we can agree). But before we can achieve success, we really need to define what success means to us. That is where the problem rests. One person’s definition of success may not be the same us another. Their perceptions on the situation differ.

Perception may be defined as a process by which individuals shape and interpret their sensory impressions in order to give meaning to a situation. The situation may be the same, but the interpretation of that situation by any two individuals may differ, sometimes widely.

It is no different in the field of project management. When it comes to agreeing what project success (or failure) looks like there can often be disparity. With so many factors to consider it is often perceived differently by different people. Unless someone makes the effort to get all stakeholders to agree to the success criteria.

I recall an interesting meeting a few years ago. As a portfolio manager I needed to “explain” this perception issue to a senior project manager who was running one of the portfolio’s projects. He had a solid reputation, finishing projects on time and on budget and with the highest quality possible. He was determined to deliver his current project to his (and the PMO) success criteria of time, budget and quality. Typically this would be admirable and valid achievement. Unfortunately his key project stakeholders had additional business “success criteria” that were not being met. Had the project continued on this path, the project manager would have delivered a successful project (certainly in his eyes), but failed in the eyes of the key project stakeholders. For the stakeholder primary goal was his very own success criteria, all other success measurements where secondary or in many cases irrelevant!

It’s similar to the analogy that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

What does your organization consider to be a successful project? Do your stakeholders expectations differ greatly from the project organization?

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