Defining Project Success

I read a blog recently on the definition of project success and was surprised by the definition. The definition, based on Pier’s experience with agile development, is when the customer is happy and when the project team is happy and satisfied. I will probably be vilified for this, but I disagree. A project can be very successful and the project team miserable. I don’t recommend it, but it is true. The project is paid for by someone. That person or persons defines the success criteria. Whether they use that criteria or not is a different issue, but let us assume they do. If you meet those criteria, success; if not, failure. Further, depending on those criteria, it is possible for degrees of success or failure.

It may seem incorrect to discount the project teams opinion and I personally do strive to keep my teams happy whenever possible. Many time I have had the experience to be on projects I hated. We all get them. The military is practically comprised of doing projects people do not want or like to do: ditch digging, latrine duty, kitchen duty, patrols, and so on. The corporate world has the same. Some of the most common ones that I have seen are report generation, end of month / quarter / year tasks, the entire Year2K problem, and the management quid-pro-quo deal (in which a manager agrees to lend a team to do something for another manager). As a manager, I have assigned projects to teams knowing they would be unhappy, but the work needed to be done.

I will even go further. I have seen vastly successful projects in which the client was not happy or satisfied. This happens frequently in world of finance IT. Many clients frequently expect miraculous turn around times, clairvoyant development teams, and the ability to absorb feature creep without any impact to delivery schedules. Many of the tasks are not even what the client really wants, but what they need to support settlement or legal & compliance. The project team & the client see it as a necessary evil and delaying their whizz-bang new feature.

So what’s my point? Not all projects are the result of client wants, but the result of client needs. These projects also need to be successful, but very few will make the project team happy or the client happy.

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