The Meaning of Success

13 October, 2014

What is success? Or, to be more specific, what is success in a project management context? Suppose you are a Project Manager. When can you break out the Champagne and declare your project a success?

Is it when your deliverables are transitioned to a maintenance operation or to manufacturing? Is it after the post-mortem meeting when you have finalized the project’s accounts and formally closed the project (assuming that those accounts show you have come in within your triple constraint)?

Or do you need to wait a bit longer. For instance, suppose your team have just developed the latest version of a popular car model. Should you hold back until the first cars have rolled off the assembly line? Some of your team could still be involved, tweaking the design to make it easier (or even possible) to manufacture. Surely now, your work is done and you can review the project’s success or lack of it?

But should you wait to see if the car flies out of the showroom? Does your deliverable have to be a sales success, before the project can be deemed successful? Think of the 1955 Citroen DS. It was not a great seller outside France mainly because it was way ahead of its time. Was that project a success?

Alternatively, should we wait until ten years after the car first went on sale and review any recalls that were necessary (or how many lawsuits were filed because of problems with the car)? Only then can we truly claim to have met the project’s quality targets. While Project Managers might argue that really the project ends when the project lifecycle is complete, not when the product lifecycle is, does it not take from your project if the product does not prove successful down the line?

I often think of it like a woman giving birth. Once the baby is successfully delivered, is the project complete? If the baby is healthy is the job not done? But how many mothers agonize over the way they brought up their child when it grows up to become a drug addict or a pederast or, heaven forbid, a politician? If the child enjoys perfect physical health during its life, can we say the project was a success? If the growing child displays no intellectual, artistic or sporting ability, is that a failure of the birthing project, or the upbringing operations? Whichever aspect you blame, the project’s deliverable cannot be deemed a success.

What has got me thinking along these lines is reading about the Malpasset Dam disaster in France. This dam was built in 1954 and collapsed in 1959.  Naturally, an enquiry was set up and a whole range of possible causes were put forward.

Firstly, the geological study was flawed in that it did not analyse the rock formations properly. This was due to a lack of money. However, would it be reasonable for the Project Manager of the construction work to beat him- (or her-) self up over this? The geological study would have been part of the feasibility study and would have been used to obtain planning permission. The construction work would not have been put out to tender if this was not satisfactory. Also, no company would countenance another survey being commissioned by the Project Manager if that was not included in the price. So, one of the Project Manager’s assumptions was that the dam was soundly located.

Apparently there were obstacles along the way. The Project Manager had to face delays in funding and also labour disputes. Despite these problems, the dam was built. Can we say then that the Project Manager did a good job – delivering in the face of adversity? Well there are other issues to consider.

In the weeks before the dam collapsed, some cracking noises were heard, but not investigated. Also, and probably more seriously, leaks were spotted – surely a bad sign in something like a dam? Also, the construction of a nearby motorway meant that blasting was carried out in the vicinity – was this the cause of the cracking?

In the days before the dam’s collapse, there was torrential rain. The water level came to within 28 cm of the top. The dam’s supervisor wanted to discharge some of the water, but was not allowed to because it might flood the motorway construction site. When permission was finally granted, it was too late – the pressure on the dam could not have been reduced enough.

So was the construction project a success? The Project Manager might get to sleep at night by arguing that skimping on the initial survey undermined the project from the start. S/he might consider the effective steps taken during the project and argue that good project management practices got the work over the line. However, did the Project Manager make sure that operations were prepared to operate the dam properly? Were safety limits articulated?  Did the dam operators know what to do when they heard cracks, or saw leaks? Was there a maximum water level that should have automatically triggered a relieving discharge?

It might help to compare project management with surgery. No surgeon will guarantee that an operation will be successful. All s/he can do is guarantee that the best practices will be used during the surgery. Similarly, the Project Manager cannot guarantee that the product will be a market success or perform useful work in the years ahead. But s/he can assure the organization that best practices were followed and the deliverable produced within the constraints set. This is what professionals – including Project Management Professionals (PMPs)® – do.

I wonder what surgeons feel, having performed a difficult heart/lung transplant operation and later seeing the patient in the street, puffing on a cigarette. I imagine it is a similar feeling to that of software Project Managers witnessing the maintenance team working long hours to fix the bugs in their deliverables.

Although Velopi does not provide counselling services for project managers, we do provide exceptional project management training, including our renowned PMP® exam preparation courses. If you seek to develop your skills in this area, please visit our training page or contact us directly. For your convenience, our PMP® training is carried out in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

© 2018 Velopi : PMBOK, PMI and the R.E.P. logo, PMP, PgMP, CAPM, PMI-SP and PMI-RMP are registered marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

Web Development by Granite Digital