How to Create a Measurable Route towards Project Success

What is Project Success and How to Measure it
Francesco | 14.02.19

At the beginning of a project, it’s always wise investing some time in making very clear how success will look alike and how you’ll know you’re on the right path. In other words, you need metrics for measuring success and progress.

In this article, we will focus on how to measure progress and the final outcome of your project. If you are interested in how to create an effective structured goal-setting process, you’ll find what you are looking for in the following article: The Five Principles of Effective Goal-setting.

Different types of project success

When do we know we are successful when managing a project? According to a classic scientific paper on project management, project success involves concernment for four factors:

  • Budget;
  • Schedule;
  • Performance;
  • Client satisfaction.

Budget and schedule are usually quite straightforward to define. If the project has been entirely completed in the established time frame and it came on or near the available budget, then it’s fine.

The last factor, client satisfaction, is often overlooked, but in the long run, what really matters is that the parts involved in and affected by the project are happy with it. Client satisfaction is usually most associated with project performance: if the project delivers what it was expected to, then we should expect happy clients.

Defining project performance, however, is a bit more tricky, and it depends on the kind of end goal.

For many projects, performance success it’s a matter of delivering the end product in accordance with the expectation of the client or business. Therefore, a project is successful if it has been entirely completed and work as expected, with all the requested features. We can call this completion-based performance.

However, not all projects are alike. Some projects measure performance success based on revenue or other measures of “volume” earned in a certain period of time. An example would be “to acquire 500 new users in 6 months”. We call this outcome-based performance.

Other times, however, defining success can be harder. Some projects, for example, have fuzzy or qualitative goals for which is hard to define a clear success metric, as in “we want to understand our target’s pain points”. True, you can transform it into a quantitative goal, such as “interview 10 users” or “find at least 2 problems shared by 50% of respondents”, but it’s a bit of a stretch.

If you can, try to avoid fuzzy goals and go for projects where performance can be measured based on completion or outcome instead. The more the end goal is well defined and shared among all the people involved in the project, the easier it will be to evaluate project success.

How to Track Progress

Step 1. The road map

Once you have established which kind of goal you want to achieve, you can create a roadmap, that is a clear sequence of phases and tasks which will bring you from the current situation to the desired objective. In the roadmap you can break down the steps required to achieve your desired result, and so it will show everyone what they have to do and by when, but it is also fundamental for establishing the metrics to measure your progress. It sounds simple, and it is when you look at it at on a basic level.

One way to create the roadmap is to reverse engineer your steps. In order to do this, you will have to start from the final goal and work backwards. Once you have clearly established the end goal, you’ll ask yourself, “What was the previous step needed to achieve the ideal situation?” Continue this exercise until you reach your starting point. Once you have completed all the steps, you’ll have a road map from your current situation to your final goal.

Put your roadmap down in a Gantt chart and take some time to review it all. Mind you, most of the time we are way too optimistic when forecasting project duration, so it is especially important that you check that the deadlines and the task dependencies are reasonable and realistic. Here you can find some tips for creating better estimates: The Art and Science of Project Forecasting.

A final check of the roadmap should be done with the clients, stakeholders, and all the people involved in its fulfilment.

Step 2. Creating your Success Metrics

On paper everything is much simpler than in real life. When we start implementing our plans and working on the project, many other factors come into play that might alter your results. Thus, it’s important to create success metrics to ensure that you’re on the right path. This is especially true for projects that have a long duration before completion and involve multiple teams.

Percentage of completion

Once you have established your timeline and incorporated your steps from your current situation to your end goal, you need now a way to measure your success in the full scope of your project. A common metric to track progress is the percentage of completion: You know that you are 100% successful if you achieve your final goal and 0% successful if you remain in your current situation, so any advancement will increase the percentage of completion.

Similarly, you can use the same metric for evaluating progress in each of the phases composing the project: you will know that you are 100% successful if you achieve your sub-goal within the given timeframe and 0% successful if you don’t. Thus, there is an element of scalability of your success based on both short term objectives and the end goal.

Task-based progress

Updating percentages of completion can be a pain, and the last thing you want as a project manager is to chase people so they update their part of the project in time. A simpler but often more effective way to track progress is to get rid of percentages of completion and track task completion only. Your project’s roadmap is usually composed of phases, which can be composed of tasks, and tasks can be composed of sub-tasks (although you could drill down as much as you want, we suggest to use three layers at max, otherwise the risk of micromanaging will be too high).

Every time someone completes a task or a subtask, they just have to update the counter, so, for example, you’ll know that the “build a website for the new product” task is now 3 out 5 sub-tasks completed.

Milestones

Whether you are going for percentage or task-based progression, we suggest you to always add milestones to your plan. Milestones are major progress points that will accurately determine whether or not your project is on schedule. Milestones usually don’t have a date range, so you can represent them with a single date on the Gantt chart.

Not every task completed or deadline met is a milestone, nor huge results only. Milestones instead should represent significant intermediate stages for meeting the overall goal. Examples of milestones in project management are the completion of a key activity, having reached a relevant objective (100th new user), the release of a deliverable, or even having decision making meeting with a client or stakeholder.

Other than as metrics of progress, milestones are also useful as proof for explaining and reporting the status of a project to clients or stakeholders.

Conclusion

A clear end goal, a sound roadmap, some milestones, and a measurable system to keep track of your tasks will provide you with the insight to know that you are successful or not when executing your plan. This facilitates the management and execution of your project, motivating you and your team to work towards the common goal.

If we don’t know how to measure our success and keep ourselves accountable throughout the duration of our projects… we will never know when we truly are successful or not. This system will provide you with the insight and game plan needed to achieve just that.

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