What defines a project as a success?

For a lot of Project Managers, the answer to this question (unfortunately), is “on-time, on-budget, on-scope”. These are known as the Triple Constraints, or the Iron Triangle, and are the Holy Grail for Project Managers. Hit these three and you can call your project a ‘success’.

But, so the thinking goes, you can’t actually hit ALL three. You can hit two of them, and get close to the third. But one of those always has to be sacrificed. Okay, then as long as you got two, and close to the third, your project is still a success.

Or is it? What really defines whether a project is successful?

The problem with the Triple Constraints is that they define success along a two-dimensional plane, with a project being either a success or a failure. What we really need to understand is that there are many more dimensions of success/failure, the primary one being – is my client happy with the outcome?

As Project (or Program) Managers, we’re tasked with bringing to fruition someone else’s idea. We’re given some boundaries (constraints) in how we do this, but ultimately we’re not trying to hit a schedule or a budget, we’re trying to give the client what they asked for.

The problem with using the Triple Constraints as the success criteria is that it’s not realistic to judge success/failure by them.

  • On-time – what if I’m a week late on a two month project? Did I fail? How about on a five year project?
  • On-budget – so if I spend $1 more than budgeted I failed?

Is there an allowed percentage of slippage before I have to admit defeat? I must’ve missed that chapter in the PMBoK Guide.

See the key point here is that while I’ll strive to hit the constraints, as the PM my primary goal will be to give the client what’s really important to him/her. The client defines success or failure. Not me, and not the Triple Constraints.

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