Defining Project Success

In "Congruence and the Prime Directive", I wrote about how congruence — honoring Self, Other, and Context — allows people to bring their talents more fully into a project. By bringing greater talent to bear, congruence helps projects succeed.

By my definition, a project is successful if:

  • it delights its customers,
  • it enhances the team's ability to work together in the future, and
  • it creates value and meaning for its individual members.

For most projects, I want all three of those conditions. If the customers aren't happy, the project wasn't successful, no matter what value the project team members enjoyed. If the project team is burned out, the project wasn't successful, no matter how happy the customer are.

In some cases, I might consider a project successful even if it does not leave the team better able to work together in the future. Some projects, for example, are accomplished by a task force that comes together, accomplishes its goal, and disbands, never to work together again. But perhaps even in these cases, the team members would do well to learn something about how to work on projects and how to work in teams. And if the team members will work together on subsequent projects, I want not only for the project to satisfy its customers and its members. I also want the team to learn from its experience, to create value for itself as a team,

Like any definition I offer, my definition of project success tells you more about me than about the thing I'm defining. And I suspect that any definition of project success is essentially an expression of who and what the definer cares about. My definition tells you that I care about the people the project was intended to serve, I care about the individual project team members, and I care about the team as a team.

Who does my definition leave out? It isn't clear to me where sponsors (or investors) fit in. Are they customers? Are they project team members? I want them to be satisfied, too. What about other stakeholders? What about members of the community in which the project takes place?

I care about those people, too. I feel anxious when I leave out people I care about. So my definition of project success is a work in progress.

Note: I adapted my definition of project success from J. R. Hackman's definition of "group effectiveness," which I read in Intervention Skills , Brendan Reddy's excellent guide for facilitators.

Experiment: How do you define success for your current project? How does your definition express who and what you care about? What people and values are included in your definition? What people and values are not included?

Experiment: How do your project teammates define success for your current project? How does their definitions express who and what they care about? What people and values are included in their definitions? What people and values are not included?

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