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What is project success?

Updated: Jan 14, 2019


Illustration by Angeline Veeneman, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

“What is project success?” is one of the toughest questions in Project Management to answer, and definitions of project success can vary hugely between methodologies, point of views and… Project Managers. When I think about project success, I don’t really think about on time/on budget/on scope. Of course it’s great if you are “on”, but ultimately the process is less important than the result – in many ways, a project is a mean to an end. When it comes to articulating what project success is, I think it’s worth looking at it on different levels:


Tier 1: Project completion success


It is important that you didn’t blow the budget, kept to the targeted timeframes and managed to deliver something that is faithful to the intention. Criteria for this level are about measuring the success of the delivery process itself and whether you are on time, on scope, on budget and to the quality of delivery that was expected. As a success measure, it is limited to the duration of the project and can be evaluated as soon as the project is officially completed, with intermediary measures being taken as part of project control processes.


Who’s accountable for this: the Project Manager.


Tier 2: Product/service success


This is about whether what was delivered actually works and gives the stakeholders what they asked for. Typically you need to measure this after a period of time the product or service has been in place, so having a system that just goes live is not quite enough. Criteria for successful product or service can be wide-ranging (e.g. system take-up, increase in uptime performance, faster handling of customer requests), and need to tie in with the original objectives.


Who’s accountable for this level: the product/service owner.


Tier 3: Business success


Business success is about defining the criteria by which the product/service delivered brings actual value to the overall organisation, and how it contributes financially, culturally or strategically to it. Success criteria may range from financial value contribution (e.g. increased turnover, profit, etc.), to competitive advantage (e.g. x points market share won), greater employee engagement (e.g. decrease in staff turnover) or customer value (e.g. customer base growth).

Who’s accountable for this level: the project sponsor.


Overall success

You can be successful in one tier but not another:

  • you may have delivered a new website and ticked all the “on” boxes (completion success met), and the website is beautiful and attracting new online traffic (product success met), but there is no evidence this has generated new customers (business success not met).

  • maybe you have delivered a new online training platform that all staff are using (product success met) and skills level have increased, resulting in efficiencies gains and higher staff retention (business success met), but the project went over budget and was delivered 6 months late (project completion not met).

Going through the process of defining success on these different levels helps you (and your stakeholders) understand the big picture, as well as the challenges in actually defining success and being able to measure it. It’s also about bringing clarity to why you’re undertaking a project in the first place, and providing everyone engaged with a common view of what success is.


Although ultimately you want to reach business success, every success, at any level, should be celebrated.