How do you define a successful project? Is success contingent on the overall value that the product or service yielded for the organization? If the project was successfully delivered, that is the requirements were met as specified and verified and validated by the project sponsor, and cost and schedule were met, but the product failed to meet its business case, has the project failed?

If the product met or exceeded its business case but the cost and schedule targets of the project were exceeded, has the project failed?

What if the cost and schedule targets were placed in the 30th to 40th percentile, and the actual results were in the 60th percentile, has the project failed? If so, if the same project had targets placed in the 80th percentile, but actuals came in at the 70th percentile (10% greater than the first example), is this project a success?

If a project was delivered successfully by all accounts and the business case return was not expected for five years, if after the five years the organization learns its expected return was not met, is the PM and team accountable for that?

5 Answers 5


A project can only be successful if the success criteria were defined upfront (and I have seen many cases of projects that skip that part..). When starting on a project, it's essential to work actively with the organization that owns the project to define success across three tiers:

  • Tier 1: Project completion success: this is about defining the criteria by which the process of delivering the project is successful. Essentially this addresses the classic "are we on time, budget, on scope, quality?" (adapted to whichever PM method you might be using). It is limited to the duration of the project and success can be measured as soon as the project is officially completed (with intermediary measures being taken of course as part of project control processes).

  • Tier 2: Product/service success: this is about defining the criteria by which the product or service delivered is deemed successful (e.g. system is used by all users in scope, uptime is 99.99%, customer satisfaction has increased by 25%, etc.). These criteria need to be measured once the product/service is implemented and over a defined period of time.

  • Tier 3: Business success: this is about defining the criteria by which the product/service delivered brings value to the overall organisation, and how it contributes financially and/or strategically to the business. For examples: financial value contribution (increased turnover, profit, etc.), competitive advantage (eg. x points marketshare won), etc.

    => Overall success: As per the examples mentionned in your question, you can be successful on one tier but not others. Ultimately I think tier 1 matters little if tiers 2 and 3 are not met, and the overall success needs to be defined and agreed as part of this exercise.

When it comes to accountabilities for success, they should be assigned according to tier:

  • 1 - Project completion success: PM (and project team).
  • 2 - Product/service success: Product/Service Owner.
  • 3 - Business success: Project Sponsor.

The process of "success definition" should also cover how the different criteria will be measured (targets, measurements, time, etc.).

  • 2
    "A project can only be successful if the success criteria were defined upfront" So true....
    – Jesse
    Commented Aug 16, 2011 at 16:00
  • Excellent answer, angeline. I've successfully completed many projects whose businesses cases I didn't understand, I didn't agree with, or sometimes were just completely absent. I've worked for immature organizations that valued pet projects and politics more than business value.
    – CraigV
    Commented Aug 17, 2011 at 4:20
  • I completely agree with "you can be successful on one tier but not others". Just don't let failures on one tier diminish the satisfaction of 'success' on another. A very well managed/executed project with high collaboration amongst the team should be celebrated even if it doesn't make any money or it wasn't what the business 'wanted' (even if it is what they asked for). Don't forget to focus on your success so that it can be repeated. Learn from your mistakes as well. If you do both, you will eventually have success on all tiers.
    – Jesse Webb
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 20:55

Success or failure is determined by:

The one viewing the project, and what their criteria for 'success' is.

The metrics by which one is being judged.

There's also a difference between project success and project management success. The PM team should only be judged on that which they have control or influence over. So if they weren't involved in the project selection or business case, then they can't be held for responsible for the benefits realization (or lack of).

  • This implies something else that I believe: the success of a project and the success of the individual tasks / elements / components that make up the project are not absolutely linked. A project may fail even if most of the individual parts deliver, and a project may succeed even if some of the components don't. It all comes down to the criteria for success, as you say!
    – Iain9688
    Commented Aug 21, 2011 at 11:14

A successful projects should deliver in three areas:

  1. Benefit realisation: This is why a project has been initiated and run.
  2. Project delivery: Deliver the project on time, within budget, on quality and on scope.
  3. Organisational project capabilities: Organisations run many projects. It is therefore important, that delivered projects also increase the confidence and capabilities of an organisation to deliver future projects successfully.

Source: http://www.prime-project-method.com/successful_projects.html


Project success is evaluated continuously by various measure, numbers, ratios, values and attributes. Project success can be measured before during and after project completion.

In simple terms, project success can be defined as:

"Achieving project objectives within schedule and within budget, to satisfy the stakeholder and learn from experience"

We can use PMBOK standard to measure project success:

  1. Time frame: Successful projects should take place as close as possible to the baseline plan. Any deviation or variation is unpleasant. We can measure schedule success as a percentage = 1 - (Actual time - Planned time)/Planned Time * 100 = %

  2. Cost: Successful projects should take place as close as possible to the planned budget. We can use cost success as a percentage = 1 - (Actual cost- Planned cost)/Planned Cost* 100 = %

  3. Communication: Successful projects should take place with least conflict, and most collaboration and ease of communication. This could have subjective measures like project team rating of ease of communication. We can also have objective measures, like the number of conflicts aroused as percentage of number of conflicts resolved.

  4. Scope: Successful projects should take place with least unnecessary change, and most effective configuration management. We can use the ratio = (number of reasonable changes completed divided by number of reasonable change-requests) %

  5. Stakeholder: This is subjective, but a successful project should leave the stakeholders satisfied and willing to do further projects.

  6. Quality: Quality standards can be used to measure the quality of outcomes. Like Statistical Quality control SQC and other quality standards.

  7. Human Resources: Successful projects should use least human resources and keep the team members involved and satisfied.

  8. Procurement: Successful projects should enhance relationship with vendors and other members of the supply chain.

  9. Risk: Successful projects should take place with minimum risk. We can measure risk by number of risky events that were identified and how each risk was dealt with.

I will come back to improve my answer.


A partial answer/ hint: speaking of success, no matter the field, we must also take into account the price paid. In most cases people tackle defining "success" from the point of view of what has been achieved, how it related to initial goals, its beneficial effects in the short and long-term, etc. But they miss to see the other side of the coin - what we had to give away for the sake of that achievement and what alternative opportunities we did not cater to in order to cater to this one.

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