There has been a lot of discussions lately about project success and what it is. This is an important discussion and has actually been around for a long time.  Interest in this seems to come in waves.  Here’s an article, “What is Project Success – A Literature Review” which surveys the subject.  It traces articles going back to 1974.  That’s 45 years ago.  And it’s a hot topic again now.

Some of the postings and articles are actually about ‘what is project success’ without saying so.  For example this excellent post, “How to Support Your Organization's Strategic Goals” on Project from Emily Luijbregts, PMP, which has a list of questions to ask about connecting strategic goals to projects, including this one:

What’s the end goal of this strategy? Do you understand where the company wants to be at the end of this strategic implementation? This could be related to market share, but also to more “soft” goals like being in a prominent list of the “Top 10 Best Companies to Work For.” In almost all of the strategy documents that I have reviewed, this is one of the easiest things to understand as companies will be promoting this heavily as the end objective.

In general, the focus on Benefits Realization is about measuring project success.  This is an increasingly important element, What success means is also the topic of some excellent content.  Here’s a video from Mark Mullaly called “reframing success”.  In it, he says that the essentials of project success are:

  • Defining What Is Important
  • Figuring Out How To Measure It
  • Agreeing Upon Results Up Front
  • Identifying Responsibility/Accountability For Delivering
  • Deciding Who Gets to Vote

It’s an excellent analysis, and I agree with each and every essential.  But here’s the thing.  The measurement of benefits does not – cannot – take place at the project handover.  When is success measured?  When?  In fact, it could take months, years, and if you have a ‘sustainability hat’ on, it could take decades or centuries.  We need to avoid having a “project management success” mindset and shift to a “project success” mindset.

Here are some tools from our two books, Green Project Management and Driving Project, Program, and Portfolio Success: the Sustainability Wheel.

The EE MapFigure 1: The EE Map

The first is a simple 2x2 matrix with two axes (see Figure 1 below).  The horizontal axis shows the triple-constraint measurements of scope, schedule, and cost to indicate success, which here I’ll call “Project Management Success”.  In effect, this is a quantification of the level of project efficiency. The vertical axis, called simply “Project Success”, indicates the long-term, steady-state success of the project – a measure of project effectiveness.  So you could think of this as an Efficiency-Effectiveness, or EE map.

Note that in this figure we can see that some projects end up delivering benefits in the long term, even having failed the standard measures of project efficiency (Sydney Opera House) and others may have been run efficiently but have steady-state outcomes that did not deliver benefits (New Coke).  If we extend this interpretation to consider social and especially environmental bottom lines, we could measure success in terms of whether the project’s outcome has detrimental effects there, and consider them in the true measure of success.  For example, if a single-serve coffee-maker launch takes place on-time, within budget, and provides all of the features it was promised to deliver, it has met the ‘efficiency’ (triple constraint) measures quite well.

Signatures of various enterprises using Sustainability Radar®Figure 2: Signatures of various enterprises using Sustainability Radar®

However, if it has a by-product of producing toxic and/or non-recyclable coffee ‘pods’ from each serving, billions of which end up in landfills, it has a huge negative environmental impact which must be considered when measuring project success from the ‘effectiveness’ axis, especially if the organization which launched this product has (as it should) values, vision, and mission statements centered on environmental responsibility.  The redefined definition of project success (upper-right quadrant) incorporates both project efficiency and project effectiveness, for a result which provides long-term, triple-bottom-line benefits.  An excellent TED video (Wallach, A., 2016) provides some tips on how to formulate your thinking in this way.


The other tool is called Sustainability Radar® and this is a way of using six key measurements to assess your own organizational context for dealing with this conundrum (the project ends, but the project’s outcome lives on, and on…).  The details for using the tool are in the book Driving Project, Program, and Portfolio Success: The Sustainability Wheel. Using the book’s “Sustainability Wheel”, composed of the dimensions of Respect, Project, Reject, Reflect, Connect, and Detect, Sustainability Radar is a 6-element rating system that yields ‘signatures’ of an organization in terms of how well it has adapted sustainability thinking into its project management culture.  The signatures, samples of which can be seen in the figure below) can help prescribe next effective actions to improve that integration and increase the quality of long-term project decisions.

To better understand this, and to see some examples, I suggest you have a look at this 15-minute video on the topic or read the articles and/or books to which I’ve referred.  I’d also be interested in your thoughts on this long-discussed and important topic.


Author Bio

Rich Maltzman is a Senior Lecturer at the Boston University Metropolitan College, an award-winning author and speaker on Sustainability in Project Management. He is one of the founders of EarthPM, a project management and consulting company that thinks about the planet’s future. He received the Cleland Award for Literature for his book Green Project Management.