Identifying Success Criteria for your Project

A step in the project methodology says, “Identify success criteria”. So how do you know where to look and how to identify them?

Before we look at success criteria, it’s probably a good idea to define them. Success criteria are 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 succeeded.

How to identify the criteria?

Success criteria are the standards or markers to determine whether a project has succeeded. To identify success criteria for your project, consider the following steps:

  1. Define the project objectives: Clearly articulate what the project is intended to achieve and what outcomes are expected.
  2. Identify key stakeholders: Consider the needs and expectations of stakeholders, including clients, customers, and team members.
  3. Evaluate project constraints: Consider factors such as budget, timeline, and resource limitations that may impact the project’s success.
  4. Determine project measures: Identify metrics and KPIs that will be used to track progress and measure success.
  5. Establish project standards: Define the level of quality, performance, and customer satisfaction that must be achieved to consider the project successful.
  6. Review and refine success criteria: Regularly review and refine them to ensure they align with the project’s evolving needs and goals.

Once you have identified your success criteria, it is important to communicate them to the project team and stakeholders to ensure everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals.

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 mix completing project deliverables to the defined scope and appropriately delivering them. 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).

I focus on those around project deliverables. These are easy enough to determine the requirements and are more meaningful for the project stakeholders. 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 (primarily 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. Completing a project on a budget was the top success criterion in a study by the University of Colorado. You may find many project sponsors mandating this in their list of things to judge the project.

When to look for success criteria

Getting your success criteria documented at the start of the project is essential. Then at least, you’ll know what you are working towards. If you don’t know what success looks like, it’s tough 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 and agree on them, and everyone knows how they will recognize that the project is complete.

Success criteria are not benefits.

When identifying success criteria, remember that they are not the same as benefits. Take this example. You are asked to produce an options appraisal report to help your boss decide what product to buy. You produce the report detailing four options and your recommendation. Your information is comprehensive, accurate, and timely delivered to your boss. Your reporting writing has been successful. Unfortunately, you didn’t answer the voicemail where your boss asked for the report a day earlier. By the time he has received your information, 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 before 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 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 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!


Daniel Raymond

Daniel Raymond, a project manager with over 20 years of experience, is the former CEO of a successful software company called Websystems. With a strong background in managing complex projects, he applied his expertise to develop and, innovative project management tools designed to streamline processes and improve productivity. Throughout his career, Daniel has consistently demonstrated a commitment to excellence and a passion for empowering teams to achieve their goals.

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