Understanding Project Performance

In recent years, there have been countless examples of high-profile projects in the UK blowing both their budgets and their deadlines. Crossrail, the Olympic Stadium, the Shard, Wembley Stadium… the list goes on.

Whilst ‘large’ projects (over £8m) are twice as likely to be late, over-budget and missing critical features than ‘small’ projects (under £800k), the evidence strongly suggests that the same problems permeate projects of all sizes and sectors. Studies by Wrike estimate that just 39% of all projects succeed, with the average overspend being 59% and the average time overrun being 74%. A worrying 75% of IT project leaders believe their projects are “doomed from the start.” 

These statistics make for alarming reading. The message is clear: projects overrunning, overspending and underperforming almost appear to be the accepted norm. Even more alarmingly, for many businesses, it is not even possible to understand how successful (or not) their projects have been. According to a study by Wellingstone, over 1 in 3 projects have no baseline, and therefore nothing to measure the project against.

But what do we mean by project “success”?  Traditionally, project success has been measured as the project being on time, on scope and in budget: ‘the triple constraint triangle’. However, increasingly, it is being recognised that there is more to project success than this.  The Project Management Institute (PMI) argues that, “the traditional measures of scope, time, and cost are essential but no longer sufficient in today’s competitive environment. The ability of projects to deliver what they set out to do—the expected business benefits—is what organisations need.”

Organisations are also placing increasing emphasis on developing more rounded “success criteria”, with elements such as project team, supplier and customer satisfaction, and programme, portfolio or even company results being considered alongside individual project results.

Whilst both tangible and intangible measures should be considered, the return on the investment (ROI) made in the project is likely to be a critical success factor, i.e. the financial savings or loss generated relative to the amount of money invested.  For example, a project investment of £500k may deliver £2m of savings to a business or a 4:1 ROI. Astonishingly though, according to a study by KPMG, 60% of companies do not measure their ROI on projects”.

It seems clear that whilst companies continue to plough time, money and resources into projects, more often than not, they do not appear to be investing adequately in agreeing appropriate performance measures, or in fully understanding whether the project has delivered the business benefits promised. When looking at project success, organisations must ensure that the project has well-defined, specific and attainable measures of success, which not only have been base-lined, but importantly that the project team has signed-up to. Not only do successful project managers use these to drive project performance, but by having a clear understanding both of where their projects have succeeded and where they have fallen short, they can seek to continuously improve.