I regularly interview and otherwise engage with lots of project and program managers. Sooner or later the conversation turns to how good they are at their job, and usually pretty soon into this conversation the response comes that they have a great track record. Their great track record is justified because they have repeatedly delivered to time and budget.
Frankly, I am usually a bit sceptical at this point. I am sceptical for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, because the really great project managers I know are not successful because they smoothly deliver trouble-free projects, but because of the way they resolve the problems that naturally arise on any complex endeavour.
But secondly, because I am not that impressed by delivery to time and budget as a measure of success. Or more precisely, I am not that impressed by delivery to time and budget as a measure of success unless it is qualified and described in the context of the goals of the project.
The Project Management Iron Triangle
One of the project management basics all project managers learn, usually very early on in their careers, is the iron triangle. There are different presentations of the iron triangle – usually, it is either described as time, cost and quality or time, cost and scope.
The iron triangle can be fairly criticised for being overly simplistic. There are many more dimensions to a project than these three, but I still think it is a very useful rule of thumb. The point about the iron triangle that I want to stress is that it is a triangle – and not a line! It is not just about two dimensions – time and cost but has a third. The critics of the iron triangle usually want to add many more dimensions.
Given that it is pretty much universally accepted amongst project managers that a project has at least 3 important dimensions, why does anyone think that a two-dimensional view of delivery to time and cost is, on its own, a good measure of success? It is a very limited and unbalanced view of success.
There is nothing wrong with starting with analysing how well a project has gone in terms of time and budget, but real success needs to consider other factors like:
- Delivery of what? It’s very easy to deliver to time and budget if you can play fast and loose with the scope or quality! It is true that often, for political reasons, one has to deliver something quickly and cheaply, and then go on the deliver the full scope and quality required. But real success needs to consider what was delivered as well as how quickly or how cheaply a project was delivered for. Additionally, some projects are very easy to hit time and cost hurdles on, others are incredibly hard.
- Delivery how? So a project was delivered to time and cost, but with what impact? Where have all the stakeholders taken with you on the project journey? Was an appropriate level of risk taken and no more? There are many aspects to how a project was delivered that need to be factored into an assessment of success. I am sure we have all seen the hard-driven project which has caused so many causalities and taken so many risks as to undermine any other measure of success.
- Delivery impact? Have the results of the project – whether that was specific deliverables or organizational change – worked in such a way to deliver the long term business case? This is often tricky to assess as it may not be apparent at the point of delivery if this will happen. But nevertheless, projects delivered to time and budget which fail their business cases or are operational nightmares should hardly be considered as a success.
Experienced project managers know that a project is a rich multi-dimensional thing, and therefore so too must any judgements about the success of a project be. By all means, start by assessing success in terms of time and cost, but then put that into the context of scope, quality, risk, operational impact, customer satisfaction and achievement of a business case.
About Guest Contributor
Richard Newton is an author, program manager, speaker and consultant. His last book was The Project Management Book published in April 2013 by FT Books.