Learn the 5 most common critical project success factors, as stated in the Chaos Report by The Standish Group.


Hello and welcome to this month’s project management whiteboard. Today we’re going to talk about how to achieve successful projects and I want to start off talking about the chaos report.

Some of you may already know about the Chaos Report, it’s a report published by the American Consulting Organisation called The Standish Group. In this report, they’ve surveyed thousands of IT projects over several years. The latest report suggests that 32% of projects are successful, 44% of projects were challenged and 24% of projects failed. Now the controversy of this report revolves around the definition that The Standish Report uses to define success or failure. Their definition of success is that the project was delivered on time, within budget and according to expectations. If the project fails on one of these three aspects, it’s challenged. If the project fails on all three of these aspects, it has failed. Now you might consider, for example, Google setting up a project to deliver and release the next version of Android. If using the The Standish Group’s definition of success and failure, if the project were to deliver one month late, it would have been challenged. However, what if the London 2012 Olympic project, the main Olympic stadium project delivered late and was therefore unable to host the opening ceremony? I think we’d probably all agree that this would be a failed project. However if Google released their latest Android one month late, in my mind doesn’t make that either a challenged or failed project. The simple fact is that Google can still gain the benefits that the project is expected to deliver.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this survey is that they interviewed different stakeholders on the projects to ask them what are the critical factors which in their opinion makes projects successful. I’ve summarised here behind me the 5 most commonly given success factors.

Number one was executive support. This means that every project needs to have that senior level manager who’s sponsoring your project and would be expected to take the big decisions about the project. For example, you might have an end of stage assessment where the executive might decide whether to either continue or stop the project. In other words, executives take the big decisions about the project managers whilst delegating day to day decision making to them. Now sometimes the project sponsor executive goes AWOL – absent without leave. Last year I did a project management course on behalf of a UK central government department and the project managers complained to me that their executive on their project, goes off to his Tuscan villa whilst parliament closes down for 4 months. This executive doesn’t give the other project managers a phone number or an email address, in other words they are out of contact. This, the project managers assured me led to “paralysis” – the inability to take decisions. So if you have an AWOL executive or sponsor, then your project is in serious trouble from the very beginning. If I were that project manager, I would explain the risk to the executive and by flagging it as a risk, try to explain to them the importance of them taking the decisions.

The second most common aspect given was user involvement. In other words, we need to have the right users involved, early on and often. Now who is it that specifies the requirements for projects? It’s the users. So if you don’t get the users involved in specifying requirements early on, then the fact of the matter is you’re going to be delivering a solution which doesn’t meet the users’ needs.

Third success factor seen as critical to the success of a project is clear business objectives. The business objectives should clearly aline with any corporate strategies. If it doesn’t then there is a serious question that needs to be asked that is why the project is actually being run. We would expect all projects to deliver value for money for the business which is investing in the project. So, we need to have a business case which analyses the costs and the benefits, and we need to be clear about what the expected return on investments are.

Emotional maturity was the fourth critical success factor described in the survey. For example, how are you going to deal with "demanding" people on your project? There’s always difficult people on projects. You might have the bully, the drama queen/king, the recluse. What we’re talking about here is often the office politics. How you deal with these difficult people, get the doubters on board and supportive of your project will require very good communication and people management skills.

The fifth most important critical success factor that was listed in the survey was about optimising scope. I’m going to say one word – prioritise. Prioritise the requirements, because of course you’re never going to have the time or the money to implement all those requirements which the user has specified. It’s important that you prioritise which features, which functions and which deliverables are going to deliver the business the most value and focus your efforts on delivering those before you deliver the less essential requirements to your project.

So we’ve only looked at 5 critical success factors, there are a lot more. But what I would suggest is that on your projects, look at these 5 success factors and you will see that a lot of them are all about managing people. So if you haven’t already got good communication skills, I suggest you maybe go on a course to improve these. If your executive is going AWOL, flag that as a risk. Get the users involved early, make sure you have identified what it is you’d like to achieve from the project, set those objectives and aim towards them. Deal with all the difficult people in the best way you can and prioritise the requirements. If you do these things then you’re going to give yourself a better chance of being successful!

Learn the 5 most common critical project success factors, as stated in the Chaos Report by The Standish Group. Which factors are most important to your projects? Please share them below!