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The Fourth Dimension of Project Success

The common understanding of project success is three dimensional. From this perspective, the dimensions correspond to each arm of the Iron Triangle: schedule, budget, and specification. To show how incomplete this definition is, we’ll use an example:

We once saw a project where an agricultural supply company had developed a new product for inseminating cows. It was an effective product that allowed farmers to get much more bang for their bull. The marketing department estimated that if just one in every ten farm bought the product, they could make over $20 million off of it. The company invested millions in developing the product assuming they could make an almost 10:1 return on investment. But upon release, no one bought it. It was shelved with zero return, so the company lost all of its investment.

The example fails to mention whether the product was delivered on-time, on-budget and on-spec. Do those questions even matter? Even without that information, we can conclude the project was an abject failure.

This illustrates the fourth dimension of project success. A project must realize the benefits outlined in the business case, or else it has failed.

We can take that even a step further. If the cow insemination product had made $20 million, then even if it had gone 50% over-budget and hit the market a full quarter late, it still would have had a massive return on investment. The project would have gone down as a success even if it missed the mark by almost every measure from a project management perspective.

Benefits realization has earned its reputation as being notoriously difficult. You can read our post on the challenges of meeting the original business case and the solution here.