How do we define project success? For me, the analysis is usually broken down into these four categories:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • End product usability
  • Budget management
  • Schedule management

Gary Heerkens’s brief case book entitled “Project Management” takes a cut at the definition of success. I’ve included a slightly modified version of this section below.

Defining Project Success

The definition of project success is obviously critical. After all, that’s how you’ll be judged as a project manager. Unfortunately, there are almost as many definitions of project success as there are project management professionals. To add to the confusion, every organization has its own view of what matters in project outcomes.

So, instead of trying to focus on one definition, I’d like to offer a framework of thought on success. I’ve found it valuable in the many discussions I’ve had over the years. If you consider the various ways that projects could be deemed successful, you come to realize that project success exists on four levels, each with a unique perspective and set of metrics. And despite the specific values used to quantify success or failure, the principle remains constant. Following are the four levels of success that I use:

Level I—Meeting Project Targets

Did the project meet the original targets of cost, schedule, quality, and functionality? Although it’s certainly admirable to beat these targets, my concept of success is tied to whether the project manager did what was expected. In other words, maximum success is zero variance between project targets and results. There are at least two reasons why I embrace this interpretation. First, it supports the organization’s need for certainty. Second, I believe that project managers who chronically beat targets are suspect, at best.

Level II—Project Efficiency

How well was the project managed? This is a metric for the process. If the project meets its targets, but the customer groups, project team, or others were adversely affected by the project experience, the project will probably not be perceived as successful. Project efficiency can be evaluated through the use of criteria such as the following:

  • The degree of disruption to the client’s operation
  • How effectively resources were applied
  • The amount of growth and development of project team members
  • How effectively conflict was managed
  • The cost of the project management function

Level III—Customer or User Utility

To what extent did the project fulfill its mission of solving a problem, exploiting an opportunity, or otherwise satisfying a need? If the project did not satisfy the true need, the project may be perceived as a failure.

Here are some questions to help assess Level III success:

  • Was the original problem actually solved?
  • Was there a verifiable increase in sales, income, or profit?
  • Did we save as much money as expected?
  • Is the customer actually using the product as intended?

Level IV—Organizational Improvement

Did the organization learn from the project? Is that knowledge going to improve the chances that future projects will succeed at each of the three levels described above? High-performing organizations will learn from their failures—and their successes—and use that knowledge to improve their success rate in over time. This level assumes a long-term perspective and measures organizational learning and a resultant increase in project successes. The primary tools for organizational improvement are the maintenance of accurate historical records and the widespread use of lessons learned.


What is your definition of project success? What is your organization’s definition…or your PMO’s definition? Some organizations focus on customer satisfaction. Others focus mainly on budget or schedule. I’d really like to hear your feedback and thoughts.