Project Practitioners > Postcards from Sydney: Project decision making, part 2

Postcards from Sydney: Project decision making, part 2

By Michael Aucoin

How do you define project success? It seems like a question with a simple answer. A project is a success if it meets its objectives within the project constraints of scope, schedule, cost, risk, quality and resources.

But, reflecting on part 1 of this mini series, remember that people make decisions based on emotion. The individuals associated with and affected by your project will determine success based on how they feel about your project. It is important to know this truth when making decisions as the project progresses. While we in the project management profession obsess about schedule and budget, the final word on your project is overwhelmingly determined by how people feel about the product of the project, that is, whether you really got it “right”. There are many examples of this truth, but let’s focus on Exhibit A, an iconic image that is prominently featured in so many postcards from Sydney, Australia.

The Sydney Opera House practically defines the city in the minds of people around the world. It is a visually stunning edifice, viewed and photographed from every angle, at sunrise, sunset, under the full moon, and illuminated by fireworks. It evokes “oohs” and “aahs” from tourists on boat tours of the harbor. When travelers visit Australia, what do they want to see? Kangaroos, koalas, and the Sydney Opera House. It’s influence is magnetic, even magic – a success many times over for tourism, and for rankings in the “must see” categories.

While the Sydney Opera House is an unqualified and enduring success, would it surprise you to learn that according to our typical project metrics, it was an embarrassing failure? The project finished 10 years late and 14 times over budget.

Let me repeat those numbers so they’ll sink in: 10 years late and 14 times over budget. The architect Jørn Utzon, the man responsible for the vision and its realization, left the project midway through the ordeal. While he resigned, he was just as much chased away into professional exile.

The overruns were not the result of waste, incompetence or corruption. The original targets were overly optimistic for political acceptance (sound familiar?). At the same time, the visionary architecture was ahead of its time, and the project evolved through experiments in multiple domains. It pushed the envelope in construction techniques, computer-aided design, and yes, even project management.

In the project management community, such an endeavor would be the subject of professional head-shaking and shame. Consultants would cite it as a case study, to Monday morning quarterback every ill-advised move. Meanwhile, in a private location, a meeting of Project Managers Anonymous would convene to help heal the unfortunate individuals traumatized by the experience.

How can a seeming train wreck of a project become such an overwhelming success? How do we make sense of this paradox?

The answer is that people make decisions about the Sydney Opera House based upon emotion. The lasting emotions they feel about the result of the project are positive, uplifting and inspirational. The facts about blown budgets and schedules are unknown and irrelevant because with the emotional deliverables, the project team got it right.

What are the emotional deliverables of your project? How can you ensure the delivery of positive emotions long after your project comes to a close?

I wish there was a checklist to give you to guide you in this endeavor, but it doesn’t exist. Instead, the answers to these questions come first through intuitive feelings of “rightness”. With your customers and users, imagine the desired experience from the product of your project. What you seek first is not a requirements list but rather an experience. Identify the experience, and then you can identify the building blocks of features and widgets that will lead to the experience – more about this process in the next installment of this mini-series.

Please understand that I am not suggesting that project teams have blank checks or unlimited schedules. Emotional deliverables deserve a place among project constraints. When stakeholders are clear about emotional deliverables, they can make enlightened decisions on direction in the midst of the project. However, achieving this clarity requires consideration of the big picture and the long run.

Decades after the Opera House was built, those who governed it came to reconcile with Utzon. He received architecture’s highest award, and the building was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Guide your project decisions by emotional deliverables and experiences for your customers and users. Someday soon, you will hear their “oohs” and “aahs”. You will feel a sense of deep satisfaction knowing that they too are sending “postcards” to let others know of your project success.


B. Michael Aucoin, D. Engr., PE, PMP is president of Leading Edge Management, LLC and author of Right-Brain Project Management (Management Concepts, 2007). He can be reached at

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