Redefining Project Success

When we measure a project’s success what do we look at? Most of the time we would see on-time, on-budget and delivery to defined scope as our key measures. Is this really the measure of a successful project? What about user adoption, being ready, willing and able to perform in the post-project world? Delivering the best-run project will make the PMO Director happy but what about the customer’s readiness to actually use the new state as delivered by the project?

All projects are disruptive. Even the best projects (a project is by definition, a temporary endeavor to accomplish a defined objective) causes disruption in some way. It doesn’t matter what type of project either. Process improvement, system implementation, reorganizations, mergers and acquisitions will all cause varying degrees of disruption in the work experiences and productivity of those affected. Expanding the view of a successful project beyond time/budget/scope measurements means evaluating the state of productivity and user willingness to proceed after the project is closed out.

Having spent a significant part of my career rescuing (or attempting to rescue) failed or failing projects there is a predictable pattern that appears when projects fail: using very clear hind-sight to point backwards at the reasons for failure. I have never seen a project fail due to technology limitations. Every one that I have been a part of that was struggling or on the brink of complete failure had common causes in the form of “soft factors”. The so-called “soft factors” include management expectations, users not adopting to the new environment, steering teams with mixed agendas and simple resistance to change on the part of the impacted groups.

It is time to redefine project success and start looking at what happens after the implementation team celebrates the project’s end and moves on. I’m particularly fond of the saying “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door”. Using that same thought, what happens if you do build a better mousetrap but you can’t get anyone to use it? That is the real concern that needs to be addressed with all projects, once built (delivered, reorganized, optimized, etc.) and no one can, or is willing to, proceed there can be no expectation of return on investment and the very measure of project success becomes questionable.

To further illustrate the point consider the following graphic showing acceptance and familiarity.

Acceptance and Famillarity CompleteAcceptance (darker blue line) is a measure of the attitude of those who will be impacted by the project’s stated goal and their willingness and capacity to participate.

Familiarity is an indicator of how well everyone understands what the future state is. This could be how well they are trained on a new system, how well their new role is explained to them, comfort with a new organization structure, simply how well they understand what is expected of them after the project is complete.

It is no mistake that the acceptance line starts outside of the graph’s box, indicating a negative number. At the beginning of a project there can be, and likely will be, negative acceptance in the form of resistance to change. This can be caused by many factors, including how well previous projects were executed and how well the results were realized. Familiarity will be zero until everyone starts to hear about what is coming (hopefully from the leadership and not through the grapevine).

If these factors are so easy to spot after they manifest themselves why can’t we detect and measure them at the outset, creating proactive plans to address them and mitigate their risks?

The good news is that we can and it is not that difficult.

Breaking the “soft factors” down into something tangible and therefore measurable is our first step. The two broad categories are defined as:

  • Leadership Alignment
  • Organizational Tolerance/Readiness

Starting with an objective measurement of leadership alignment we can immediately see if we have consistency in the leadership’s expected project outcomes. Inconsistency in expectations will cause inconsistency in how the project is represented to the organization. The ability to clearly and consistently articulate the value of the project is essential. Through this comparison process, conducted with 30 minute interviews with key stakeholders, we can build the foundation of a predictive model of success based on the level of agreement that exists. This is not an exercise of assigning blame or fault, quite the opposite. Misalignment leads to miscommunication which leads to misplaced expectations and confusion within the organization. By assessing and re-aligning leadership the level of confusion drops significantly and the probability of success rises accordingly.

The second major dimension is a measure of the organization’s ability and desire to change. Using survey techniques we can gather a cross-sectional view of those who are going to be impacted by the project. This will point us toward concerns that the employee base may have about their sense of inclusion, impacts to their current workload, confidence in their ability to survive the project and the post-project environment that they would otherwise not bring up to their manager(s).

P5’s unique approach creates a framework of objective measurements, facilitates a dialogue about the real issues and risks, and integrates them into firm action plans to eliminate barriers to project success.

The P5 Change Assessment Model shows the relationship of reported user readiness within the organization as opposed to stakeholder and leadership alignment to the stated goals. This combined view will yield one of four possible states on the model, each with a unique challenge and set of action plans needed to address them. The combinations are

a) Ready and AlignedFull Model with Labels

b) Not Ready and Not Aligned

c) Ready and Not Aligned

d) Aligned and Not Ready

The data to support assessment of readiness and placement on this model is collected via electronically administered surveys, with invitations to participate sent via email. Responses are anonymous but can be broken down by organizational unit, management hierarchy, geography or some combination of each as determined within each engagement.

After the initial assessment, specific action plans can be made to address the situation and turn the impacted employee base, leadership team or both toward a higher probability of post-project value. Project communications, training plans, user engagement strategies can all be finely tuned to generate maximum impact from the project and reduce or eliminate the unseen risks of “soft factors” that were previously undiscovered and left unmanaged.

P5 offers this as a core service offering. A typical engagement will consist of 2 to 3 weeks onsite to conduct interviews and administer the organizational assessment via online survey tools. After interviews are completed and the survey data is tabulated a final report is issued within one week. The report will have a completed model showing organizational placement and suggested action plans for addressing the current state. Based on the duration of the project a recommended follow-up schedule will also be presented to measure improvements and adjust approaches as needed while the project is in flight.

Regardless of where you are in your project lifecycle this process will uncover those hidden risks and provide an objective basis with which to regain engagement of your employee base. P5 offers this as a direct service offering, or as a partnered engagement with implementers who are leading major projects for their clients. Together we can redefine project success by extending that criteria into organizational impact and creation of a user population that is truly ready, willing and able to capitalize on the benefits offered by the project.

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