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7 ways to measure project success

“We made it. We delivered exactly what we set out to do ahead of time and are bang on budget.” A great success then?

Well maybe, it depends how you measure it and specifically the points of reference being used. What looks great to the people working on the project might seem a complete disaster for those in senior management. The point is that the measurement of success can be very, very subjective.

But with thousands of projects being run across the public sector costing millions of pounds and often hitting the headlines for the all the wrong reasons it is more important than ever to measure success. Not just at the end of the project but continuously. So how do we ensure that we are set up to succeed?

1. Factors vs Criteria

What is the difference between a success factor and a success criteria? Too many projects I’ve worked on use the two terms interchangeably. The difference is crucial especially when it comes to managing and measuring success.

Success Factor – these are the set of management practices that the project team identifies as the biggest influencers on the success of your project. For example, in a project that is reliant on one or two subject matter experts the careful management of people could be considered critical to the project’s success.

Success Criteria –The set of key performance indicators (KPIs) against which you can gauge if your project is a success. Obvious examples include budget and meeting key deliverables.

By identifying those factors that are going to have the biggest impact on the end goal of your project early (success factors), you can then ask the question “ok how are we going to make sure we are hitting these key areas” (success criteria).

2. Make the Decision

Success will look different for different people and this includes your stakeholders. Yes get input from as many stakeholders as possible on the success criteria but be prepared to make some tough and potentially unpopular decisions. Decide where you as the project team will focus and then work on getting the buy in from the rest of the stakeholder community. 

3. Types of Measurement

What are you trying to measure and why are you measuring it? It might be that a more common quantitative set of KPIs are the right approach for your project. An example in a software development project might be  100 lines of code in a week/ month/ quarter. 

However, don’t forget the qualitative approach.

The best example of this a balanced scorecard style approach, typically used at a strategic level to measure areas such as internal process and customer perception. There is nothing stopping you from turning this around and using it for a project. Using the areas defined in your success factors look to set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timescale) objectives for each success factor and from there a set of measurable KPIs will drop out. 

4. Succeed Regularly

It is absolutely no good at all to only measure success at the end of a project. Set regular KPI reviews that don’t just say “yeah we’re failing”. Look at why and then put an actionable plan in place to get back on track.  Agree this process up front and make sure that the key stakeholders are involved or at least represented at each review.

Equally if things are going great don’t be afraid to let everyone know what a great job they’re doing (even the project sponsor)!

5. Communication

Along with honesty comes communication. Make sure everyone on the project at all levels is bought into what success looks like. Bear in mind that this often looks very different for someone working in the project compared to the person at the top who is spinning many other plates.

Have clear agreed reporting lines (up and down) and communicate KPIs and other measures in a way that works for the stakeholders. Whether that’s a weekly stand up, instant access dashboard, email, slide pack, phone call or catch up over a coffee. One size will probably not fit all.

6. It’s more than just a process!

There is no point in just going through the motions. Just getting to the end of a project is not success. Success should be discussed and agreed at the concept phase of any project. It can change.  Change is not an issue as long as everyone agrees on how and why. But that only happens if you understand what it looks like in the first place.

If you go to the trouble of defining success make sure it is tracked, reviewed and communicated in a meaningful way throughout the project and not just because that’s what the process says.

And don’t be afraid to celebrate when you do succeed!

7. Honesty 

Of all the six points in this blog, this is the single most important one. Honesty. Be honest with your stakeholders both above and below but more importantly be honest with yourself. 

You might be doing the best you can with what you’ve got, you could be following the process to the letter and due to no fault of your own the project is not still not hitting any of its KPIs. 

Face up to it. Ask why; are the KPIs not realistic, has there been an external event that wiped out perfectly rational assumptions, are you getting the level of support required, does the process need changing? 

Meet these issues head on and get them resolved. If you don’t someone else might and then you become part of the problem rather than the solution.


Sometimes just getting to the end of project can feel like success. Alternatively limping over the finish line you might just be glad that it is all over. But don’t forget success can change even after a project is complete. Something that was 16 times more expensive than budgeted and took 4 times longer than planned to build can still be a success long after the project is complete. Just take a look at the Sydney Opera house!