Project Practitioners > What Is The One Thing That Best Determines Project Success?

What Is The One Thing That Best Determines Project Success?

By Niel Nickolaisen

In my voluminous spare time, I have been polling my network of project managers. My poll question is this:

What is the single most important determinant of project success?

Each time I have asked this question, I first encounter a long pause. Then, the person responds with something like,

"There are numerous success factors: access to expert users, active sponsor support, clear project goals, blah, blah, blah. I don't think I can pick just one."

I understand that but if you had to pick just one, what would it be?

This generates a much longer pause. I coax a bit, cajole without embarrassing, and eventually get an answer. To date, the answer has been, "The quality of my project team."

To be honest, this was not the answer I was expecting. When I pressed each person to explain, they all said pretty much the same thing, "If I have a really good project team, the team will solve any problems with access to expert users, will ensure the sponsor is active, will set clear project goals, blah, blah, blah."

Because I was polling outstanding, successful project managers, I wanted to ask one more question:

If your project team is the key to project success, what role do you, as the team leader, play in that success?

Again, their answers were consistent, "To assemble a great team."

And, if they inherited a marginal team, to build it into a great team. Then, with the team in place, keep the team focused on the project goals, remind the team of the constraints, remove barriers, and let the team perform.

I would now like to extend my polling questions to you. Do you agree with the answers I received? If so, what are some specific things a project leader can do to assemble and build a quality project team?

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

I agree, at the root level, one needs a strong and capable team. Virtually nothing can be accomplished and implemented without qualified support.

Beyond that, I think work ethic, drive and determination and the ability to plan for and predict risk is what set average projects apart from exceptional projects.

Great question, Niel. I think I would revise and extend by asking them to quantify (or at least better qualify) what defines a great team. Is it purely the intrinsic qualities like work ethic and ability, as Ann suggests? Or does it also include their understanding and support of the project vision, commitment to managing costs or scope, and so on? The former implies selecting the right people -- or at least the right potential -- in the first place. The latter also implies some direct PM input in the form of initial kickoff activities, which means the caliber of the team reflects the caliber of the project management, and vice versa ... a giant feedback loop of escalating excellence. Not exactly a revelation, I know, but perhaps a valuable extension of the concept?

The Project Manager's ability to break-down and facilitate communication within his team. Anticipate bottlenecks and get personally involved to knock-down the walls and blockages that impede good execution decisions.

Agree - ability to pick a capable and well-balanced team is perfect. But it rarely happens in the real-world that we're handed this perfection. As team's get larger, particularly in the large-scale projects I'm used to, the likelihood of getting handed the normal bell of capabilities is more the reality and at best you can pull the peak off-center towards "better" by influencing people selection up-front.

Ultimately a good PM delivers success by leadership - building that team and pulling good people to better people in the key capabilities that match each project's unique critical capability sets.

My experience is average people are always capable of doing better and the best way to get that is to inform them of what is happening around them and why they do what they do. But as PM's we have to realize that our project personnel also have jobs to do and maintaining this vision is not always one of them. This to me is the number one skill of a successful PM - establishing communication channels that get the right quality and volume of information that the people doing the work need to do the work effectively. My effective I mean not just their own efficiency, but effective to advancing the project, which also means the impact of their decisions on peer / inter-related scope.

This for me is the number one of a set of "very key considerations" for project success. Often takes a lot of time up-front when my PM responsibilities need other focus. But even if it means me walking the floor and sitting in on discussions that most would consider below my pay-grade this is a time investment up-front that I've always found pays dividends at the end.

The theme of my recent postings, and my answer to Niel's question, is...PEOPLE. People matter; people determine project success.

We can put all kinds of answers on a to-do list, but if we constantly remind ourselves to engage people and make working with people our highest priority, we are on a path to project success.

Randy Englund,

I agree people are critical, but for me not the best answer.

Making sure everyone involved is clear on what success looks like is the single most important factor in determining success. Without that even the best people can miss the mark.

Eric, I like your observation on large teams, the bell curve, and pulling the peak off-center towards "better." (That also reminds me of all the Marshall Goldsmith "strengths" books and his emphasis on not spending so much time trying to fix people's weaknesses, but instead identify and build on their strengths.)

I also believe the old adage that most people want to do a good job, so I try to remember to "check myself" first - if I'm the leader but not getting results I wanted, where have I fallen down on communicating the goals and what's needed from each person? I very much agree with your comment, Kupe, that even the best people can miss the mark if they're not clear on what success looks like.

Along that same theme: What do PMs think of as a good team? I remember working with a team that was "hard to work on" because a couple of people were abrasive and could be difficult in meetings. From the outside perhaps someone would say "this isn't a strong team". But one of the guys turned his (somewhat abrasive) passion to "why we should NOT be implementing this, even if the CTO thinks we should!" - and he was talking from a customer viewpoint, and company profitability viewpoint. In the end, his insights won the day and the project was pulled onto the right path, because of him.

A PM friend once told me one of his "job description" bullets for us all. "Everyone on the team gets to be a prima donna but you. You are the project adult." Couple that with my story above and it reminds me to make sure I'm paying attention to the team member behaviors that REALLY matter, and just count it as part of my job to deal with the rest!

I believe that "COMMITMENT" to the success of any given PROJECT comes way before selecting the TEAM that will make it happen. A leader with a clear understanding of the Project at hand and with the COMMITMENT" to make it happen will never stop to adversities, will never give up, will never convey a message of "failure" to his TEAM and will never quit until the project is accomplished successfully.

I would put Stakeholder/Sponsor involvement and buy-in to as the single most important factor that would influence the success or failure of the project. When the people at the leadership team are fully involved, they will ensure that it has the direction it needs to be successful.

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