The Difference Between Project Success and Failure May be in Your Head

Posted by Brad Egeland

I’ve written a lot about project success factors and thoughts on why projects fail.  It’s even a topic on this month’s project management surveys (go here to take part 1 and part 2 of the June PM surveys – we’ve had great turn out so far so the results will be interesting … so please participate).

Depending on your organization or your customer or even your own perception, the definition of project success or failure can be very different.  Usually it’s one of three possible options:

  • On time project delivery
  • On budget project delivery
  • Satisfied customer upon delivery

However, it can sometimes be a little gray.  The fine line between project success and project failure may not be that clear.

An example of different perceptions

Case in point – I once led a project for a company where the client was a major airline.  The client who was receiving the customized software implementation wanted it done in 90 days – something we had never done before in industries we were familiar with let alone in the airline industry where our software had never been implemented.  A new industry meant new configurations to the software – to promise 90 days was absolutely crazy.  What was Sales thinking?  What was our company leadership thinking?

In the end, it wasn’t a 90 day implementation.  At the 90 day mark I was onsite with a team doing everything we could to get things up and running but there were too many issues – too many things missed in the early requirements phase because we cut it short at the customer’s request based on the fact that they wanted an out of the box implementation.  Yeah, right.  That really wasn’t the case.  Finally, about 90 days later, I finally handed off the system to them as close $38,000 over budget – most of which the customer did agree to pay.

Was this project a success or a failure?  I felt that it was a huge failure.  I know our customer was not very satisfied though they did acknowledge that most of the blame rested with them.  My organization’s executive management?  They actually considered it fairly successful because we implemented it, received payment for about 95% of the work (meaning we still made a large profit) and we were able to say we implemented our software in a new industry.  Yeah!  No.


So now we want to hear from you.  What does your company consider to be a successful project?  What do you customers look for in a successful project?  Is it on time delivery?  On budget delivery?  End user satisfaction?  Something else?

Let’s get some good comments going and generate some feedback because this is a topic with such a gray area that it definitely deserves further thought and evaluation.  No two project outcomes are the same and it seems that everyone’s perception of project success is enough different to make this a little interesting.

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One Comment to “The Difference Between Project Success and Failure May be in Your Head”

  • If in the scope of the airline project was only to implement the system in 90 days. The project has been sucessfull implemented. The only fairly unsuccessful portion is that it was over budget by 38,000. This is one of the downfalls of quantifying scope with too many numbers. But sometimes the benefits are realized in a less quantifiable way, through productivity and efficiency. Which would not surfaced till at least a year or two later.

    Technology refresh and new technology are always inconvenient to the users and to legacy systems in some ways, but sometimes it is better for these two to play catch up then to implement a few years later. Sometimes the legacy systems (and users) have lagged to a farther degree that it will cost much more for the implementation.

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