Success or Failure – It’s About Expectations

How do you know if your project succeeds or fails? If you assembled your management team in a room and gave them some project statistics, would they rate the project a success or a failure?

Consider this. You’ve just completed a project that was planned for six months of work by a team of five. The budget was $400K including deployment hardware and software.

  • The project finished in seven months, not six. All else being equal, was the project successful?
  • The project finished in six months but required 6 people and thus ran over budget. Success or failure?
  • The project finished on time with five people but the software ran much slower than expected so the deployment hardware had to be upgraded at an additional cost of $75K. Success or failure?
  • The project finished on time and on budget but contained more significant defects than the business community expected resulting in added support costs. Success or failure?
  • The project finished on time and on budget but several significant features were omitted resulting in lost end user productivity. Success or failure?

These are not simple questions and there are no easy answers. Yet, the questions need to be asked and answers must be offered so that the organization can learn and improve. Furthermore, if word spreads that finishing 15-20% over estimates is okay, teams will naturally gravitate toward that goal.

Always define success criteria.

Success criteria are easier to manage if you estimate in ranges. How broad the range should be depends on your organization’s risk tolerance.

Think about the minimum, realistically achievable goals for the project. Then consider the most likely, worst case outcomes. (Ignore outcomes like the project never finishes or is over budget by a factor of ten. Let’s assume you are better than that!)

Somewhere within those extremes are success criteria you can use to set expectations with the stakeholders. Don’t offer a six months estimate; offer 5.5 to 7 months. Don’t offer $400K; offer $360K to $475K.

Manage expectations better at the outset and you’ll be more successful at the end.

Updated: January 30, 2011 — 11:03 pm