Identifying success criteria for your project
There’s a step in the project methodology that says ‘Identify success criteria’. So how do you know where to look and how to identify them?
Before we look at identifying success criteria it’s probably a good idea to define what success criteria are. Success criteria are basically statements that set out how you will know when you’ve achieved a goal. They explain what ‘good’ looks like and how you will know when you are done. They are the measures that you can use at the end of the project to tell your stakeholders that you’ve achieved everything you set out to and that the project can now be closed (and depending on your workplace this can be invaluable). They are the keys that open the door to proving your project has been a success.
Where to look for success criteria
Success criteria are derived from the project deliverables, and by extension, the benefits. You probably won’t be able to lift them directly from the business case. Your success criteria will be a mix of completing project deliverables to the defined scope and delivering them in an appropriate way. For example:
- The software is compatible with IE 11, Chrome, Safari and Firefox (about the project deliverable).
- The project cost does not exceed 10% of the original budget (about the project process).
Personally, I focus on those around project deliverables. These are easy enough to determine the requirements and are more meaningful for the project stakeholders. Frankly, as a professional project manager you shouldn’t need a list of success criteria telling you how to do your job: the On Time, On Budget, On Scope measurements. But if it helps (especially if you work in an environment where these things aren’t taken for granted) then make yourself a list of project process success criteria too. In fact, completing a project on a budget was the top success criteria in a study by the University of Colorado and you may find many project sponsors mandating this in their list of things by which to judge the project.
When to look for success criteria
It’s important to get your success criteria documented at the start of the project. Then at least you’ll know what you are working towards. If you don’t know what success looks like then it’s very hard to say that you have achieved it, or are working to achieve it.
Ideally, your success criteria should be documented in your Project Initiation Document or Project Charter. Then your sponsor can see them, agree on them and everyone knows how they will recognize that the project is complete.
Success criteria are not benefits
When you are identifying success criteria, remember that they are not the same thing as benefits. Take this example. You are asked to produce an options appraisal report to help your boss make a decision about what product to buy. You produce the report, detailing four options and your recommendation. Your report is comprehensive, accurate and delivered to your boss on time. Your reporting writing has been successful. Unfortunately, you didn’t pick up the voicemail where your boss asked for the report a day earlier. By the time he has received your report, he has already decided what product to buy and your recommendation is of no benefit to him.
A benefit is something that the business-case writer uses to justify the investment in a project. Something like increasing the customer base or improving quality by 20%. A success criterion sets out to prove that a project deliverable meets what the business asked for. It’s these deliverables that the project stakeholder can then use to deliver the benefits.
Success criteria can be established and measured prior to or at the end of the project. Benefits might not be able to be measured until a little while after the project has closed.
So you can see that there are some differences although ultimately your stakeholders will judge success by a mixture of whether the success criteria have been achieved and whether the benefits are being delivered.
In summary, when it comes to identifying success criteria you should:
- Use them to define what good looks like
- Use them to define how you will know that the project has finished
- Include success criteria based on both process and deliverables
- Identify and document them early.
A clear definition of success through the success criteria will make it possible for you to actually achieve that level of success. There’s nothing more satisfying than ending a project and saying that you achieved what you set out to achieve: that’s what success criteria are there for!