Sunday, July 8, 2012

What Makes A Project Successful?

After working many years in a wide variety of organizations in several different countries, I one day asked myself - why are some projects successful, but many others are not, even within the same organization. 

Certainly a lot of effort has by now been placed on providing sound project management  methodologies and training in most organizations. And project managers are typically very smart and capable.

Yet, according to Standish CHAOS and other studies, more projects fail (or are over budget and/or behind schedule) than succeed.

Why is this?  After much reflection from my own experience on what makes some projects (and project managers) succeed and others fail, I came to the conclusion that there are five key factors at work here - and every single factor is critical to project success.

These five factors are Goals, Processes, Skills, Attitude and Culture.

Now whilst most organizations have good processes and methodologies and training, and some have also done a good job on developing project management skills, the other factors are mostly happenstance. Some project managers happen to have a great mindset and attitude for managing projects, and a few organizations have a positive and supportive culture.

So let's examine each of these factors and see how each can greatly influence a project's success.

In my second post on this blog, I have already noted my belief that a passion for and commitment to attaining project goals is indeed the most important thing for a project manager to possess to achieve those goals.

Goals should cover meeting project business objectives, schedule and budget commitments while ensuring the complete satisfaction of the client and other key stakeholders with the project.  These goals should be the lens through which every project activity is planned, every project decision is made and every project issue is addressed. 

Sound project management processes and methodologies are important, as they reflect best practices that should enable project managers to deliver projects faster and more successfully.  However, most organizations seem to fall into one of two camps - they either have minimal or poor methodologies, or they have advanced to the other extreme and have a slew of methodologies all of which are expected to be carried out on all projects.

The ideal situation is to have a different methodology set that is tuned to each type of  project being undertaken, with flexibility being given to the project manager to scale and adapt the methodology, tools and templates as they see fit.  In this case, the focus is on achieving results, not completing the methodology which should be there as "a tool, not a weapon".  Methodology training is of course essential, so that all project team members understand the methodology, and the motivation, value and importance of the best practices implicit in the methodology.

There are three sets of skills that a project manager should have, if they are to be successful:
-  Management skills
Depending on the size and complexity of the project, a wide variety of management skills are needed, such as leadership, communication, negotiation and conflict resolution skills.
-  Business skills
It is essential for a project manager to have a strong working knowledge of the project's business environment and the business needs being addressed, if they are to succeed.
-  Technical skills
As well as strong project management skills, the project manager should also have a good understanding of the project's technical environment.  Relying only on technical staff to make some decisions invariably leads to solutions that are in the best interests of the technologies being deployed, not the project.

The attitude and mindset that a project manager brings to the project is an extremely significant, yet often under appreciated success factor.  Project managers who are excited about their project and have a constantly positive, pro active, "can do" attitude are more likely to inspire and motivate their team to overcome obstacles and not be overcome by them.

Finally, and even more under appreciated is the importance of the culture of the organization as a factor in project success.  Just look around and you can see the positive impact of a creative and innovative culture in organizations such as Google and Apple.  Some organizations on the other hand are political, risk averse and bureaucratic, making it even more challenging and difficult for a project to succeed.

Once you recognize the importance of each of these factors to your project, you can make an assessment of how you can enhance those areas that need strengthening, and mitigate against others (such as a bureaucratic organization culture) that might be beyond your control.

I look forward to your comments and feedback on any other factors you feel are critical to project success.

Webinar:  APM10 GoPSAC Project Success Factors
If you are interested in learning more about all five Project Success Factors, and would like links to best practice project management methodologies, tools and templates that you may reference or use for all your projects, sign up for the recorded webinar APM10 "Go-PSAC Project Success Factors" at

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