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What Is a Successful Project?

If you ask a roomful of project managers this question, the answer that you will mostly get is that a successful project is one that is delivered on time, on budget, and in scope. This is the triad that project managers call the “triple constraints.”

According to convention, if your project meets all three of these, it is, by definition, a success. If you miss even one, then to some extent, it is not—although in practice, many projects are considered successful if they hit two out of the three.

I have two problems with this definition. First, I have seen many projects that came in late and over budget but that still delivered significant value to the company. Second, I have seen a few projects that came in on time, on budget, and in scope, but that the company never implemented. It seems perverse to deride as a failure a project that provided solid value while celebrating as a success a project that gave none.

The issue is that budget, schedule, and scope are technical metrics that define how well the project was managed. They bear little relation to the real concerns of the project owner.

Companies execute projects because they expect some benefit, such as reducing inventory, cutting staff, or increasing annual sales. The project may be executed perfectly: on time, on budget, and doing exactly what it is supposed to, but if the company does not actually reduce inventory, cut staff, or increase sales at least enough to cover the cost of the project, then the money it spent is wasted. Consider an example.

A company with $10 million annual sales budgeted $100,000 for a sales support system, expecting to increase sales by five percent, or $500,000. The project suffered a hundred percent cost overrun for a total project cost of $200,000. If the company does not implement the system or does so but fails to increase its sales, it has wasted $200,000—the budgeted cost plus the overrun. But if the company does implement the system and increases its sales as it expected, it will recover the cost of the overrun in less than three months, and it will pay for the entire system in under half a year. This is not unusual: The benefits from a system normally exceed even devastating overruns. The catch is that the company must implement the system and do so in a manner that allows it to realize the benefits.

This is not an argument for ignoring the triple constraints. If you consistently deliver your projects behind schedule, over budget, or lacking functionality, you can expect to have a conversation with your manager about a career change. This argument is an appeal that, as a project manager, one of your responsibilities, in addition to those of meeting the budget, schedule, and scope, is to help the project owner realize the benefits that justify the project.

A sucessful project manager will embrace the concept that a successful project is one that delivers the benefits the company expected.

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