IMG_0696I recently asked  a sample of  the Software Process Measurement blog readers  and listeners of the Software Process and Measurement Cast how they defined project success. I constrained the answers to the classic project management three-legged stool of on-schedule, on-budget and on-scope, to avoid the predominant answer: “it depends.” Even though many of the respondents found the question difficult, everyone had a succinct opinion. The ranked responses were:

  1. On-schedule
  2. On-scope
  3. On-budget

When I asked which of the three “ons” defined project success, the top response hands down was on-schedule with nearly twice as many responses as on-scope. On-budget was a distant third, but interestingly, it was as mentioned as the second most important response on more than a few responses.

I am not surprised by how the responses stacked up. Schedule is the most easily measured and monitored of the success criteria. Everyone knows how to read a calendar, and given that most projects are created with a due date, whether or not a project is on-time is obvious.

On-scope, while representing the voice of the customer, is more difficult for most projects to interpret and measure. Projects (whether Agile or plan-based) generally evolve over the life of the project. That evolution means that the picture any stakeholder, developer or product owner had in their head at the beginning of the project may not represent what has been delivered when the project is completed. Since scope is less tangible, it is perceived to be less important (or at least more easily debated). Being on-scope may be more of a dis-satisfier (if what is delivered not close to what was wanted people will be dissatisfied, however just being on-target or close does not move the needle) than a satisfier.

The final leg on our stool was on-budget. In most cases the true budget of a project is an outcome impacted by schedule and scope, therefore is a metric that all project managers monitor but have few levers to control. Given that budget performance at a project level is deterministic the respondents perceived it as less important. Had I asked a room of IT finance personnel, I suspect that the answer might have been different.

One of the most interesting observations is that even without context everyone had an opinion about the definition of success. While context, if given, may have shifted the respondent’s perspective, their initial response represents the respondent’s natural cognitive bias. When asked to identify whether being on-schedule, on-budget or on-scope was the most important attribute of project success everyone I asked had an opinion. And, that opinion focused on the very tangible and measurable calendar metric: on-schedule. The basic definition of success that a project manager or leader carries with themselves is important because that opinion will guide how they will try to influence project behavior.

Note over the next few days we will explore the rationale behind why each leg of the stool was important to those who responded.