Project performance: What’s the best way to measure or define success in project management?
When it comes to project management, different project managers have various definitions of success depending on their experience, knowledge and context they work in.

For some, the indicator of success can be something tangible, such as managing a high number of projects that are completed on time and within the allocated budget, or making sure the project contributes to the global strategy of a company, or achieving customer satisfaction. Others however consider effective communications, increased collaboration, or stakeholder involvement as criteria to be the marker of success. In any case, the point is that there are many ways in which the performance of a project can be measured. Evaluating project performance can mean many things, and we will explore them in this blog.

Why is it important to define and measure the success or performance of a project in the first place?

This is for the simple reason that 'what gets measured gets managed' - and to measure is to know. By measuring the success of a project, you can also work to improve its performance further. Continuous measurement of a project’s performance allows the team to fix attainable and realistic targets to it.

Project managers should firstly define what success looks like for a project, otherwise it is impossible to achieve it. They need to know what they are aiming for as part of the project requirement. It is also important to do this in the initial stages of your project for clarity: because as we know, success for different people means different things (also depending on the type of project). For your team, time, cost, scope and the quality of work might be important. But for your senior management, it might be a project’s capacity to contribute to the company’s overall strategy. For your client however, it could be meeting their commitments with their external parties and customers.

So how do you reconcile these three differing concerns? The solution is to come together and agree on some common success criteria from the start.

The success criteria should measure what is important to your stakeholders and clients. According to Elizabeth Harrin, in The Girl's Guide to Project Management blog, a project's success criteria are the standards by which the project will be judged when it ends, to decide whether or not it has been successful in the eyes of the stakeholders. The definition of success criteria should therefore be a collaborative effort involving all the stakeholders and clients, which is then agreed upon, and finally documented in the project scope or project charter so that it can be referred back to.

How do we define the success of a project?

Success criteria should include hard metrics, such as delivering the project on time and within budget, achieving the project scope, meeting milestone dates, achieving cost targets, reaching specific goals, and managing project risks such as safety, health, environmental and security requirements.

Of course, you don’t have to include all of the above metrics in the success criteria to evaluate the success of your project - it would be wise to use just three or four, particularly if you are a small private company just the delivery of project on time, within budget and achieving a specific task would be enough.

But if, for example, you are an industrial company working in the mining or energy sectors, you might want to include managing project risks, meeting safety and security requirements in the success criteria. As another example, if you are a company working in the environmental sector, it would be imperative to include health and environmental requirements as success criteria within your project plans.

Customer satisfaction is also an important indicator of success or failure, regardless of sector or industry. Let’s be honest, at the end of the day customer is king! For that reason, at the end of any project it’s a good idea to send a questionnaire to all the stakeholders (senior management, customers, final users, the full project team, subcontractors, etc.) to get some valuable feedback for your future project progress and project development.

Finally, how should we measure the success of the project manager?

Hard facts and metrics are good, but don’t underestimate the human side of things, such as the behaviour and attitudes of project managers or project teams, as well as team satisfaction, quality of daily work, and communication and collaboration among team members. It is always important to evaluate the human element of project management during complex projects.

There are also many combinations of criteria to evaluate the performance of a project manager. You could analyze the success of a project manager on the basis of just one project, or you could evaluate them globally based on the number of projects he has successfully completed. You could even measure the performance of a project manager just by the way he motivates or inspires his team, rather than the successful completion of a project which (depending on the success criteria) may be subjective and dependent on various parameters. Do they have a positive, can-do attitude when leading their teams? Does this result in positive project outcomes?

Better still, an excellent measure of the success of a project manager is their ability to carefully manage a crisis. Are they able to turn a crisis into an opportunity? Can they navigate a team through the difficult terrain of office politics, keeping the goal of successfully finishing the project in mind? This skill is not to be underestimated.

As with many professions, the approach and measurement of projects and project managers is highly influenced by human factors such as experience, personality and working styles. The trick is to acknowledge this as an influence – even a positive – early on, and benefit from what each person can bring to the table, while also being clear from the start about what success means to everybody.