What Makes a Project Successful?

You’ve gone over the strategy, analyzed the market and put a plan in place. Heck, you’ve even gathered a rockstar team after months of hiring and may have made an inspirational speech over a beer or two. But there’s still one lingering question that remains…is this really gonna work?

Good question. Actually, great question.

No one wants to embark on a project they know is going to fail. Once, I helped create a marketing strategy for the upcoming year. Each member on my four-to-five person team was assigned different parts, including market research, competitor analysis, scheduling deliverables from the product team, and organizing the tactics we would use to get there. I was in charge of brainstorming and researching the marketing tactics and making budget estimates on how much time and money this would cost.

But in working with my managers, I realized one thing: they didn’t believe this was going to work. We knew there were too many variables for what we were planning, including the company’s own revenue and strategic direction.

We soon realized what we were creating would only be a Powerpoint presentation looked at once, maybe twice. We didn’t feel that our project would be successful. Looking back at it, research backs up some of my fears and assumptions.

In this post, you’ll learn the project success factors and see what things really make a difference in projects. According to research published a few years ago from the Project Management Institute, the factors listed below really make a difference. Even though the research is from the early 2000s, I think there is some universal truth here to what makes or breaks a project.

1. Trusting The Project Manager or Team Leader

A lot of project managers surveyed by PMI pointed to uh…themselves?…as the top reason why projects succeed. A little boastful? Maybe. But if we take that concept a little wider and extend it to leaders in general, we can see the value in that. Teams and projects are influenced by their leaders and the skills they have. The professor Simon Sinek says that leaders need to create a safe place for the work to get done.

So when I was creating my marketing strategy, I inherently didn’t feel safe in creating these plans, because I had no faith that the plans would be well recognized or executed. I didn’t feel my top managers were doing anything to help with those fears either. More confidence from my VP and team leaders would have helped me feel confident that they would be completed.

What’s interesting in the research from the Project Management Institute is that project managers made a distinction between knowing who the project manager was versus the actual abilities of the project manager. I’ll combine the two here for clarity, but it’s still an interesting distinction.

Many people think projects succeed just by knowing who’s in charge. Their capabilities come after that. Just think about that for a minute…just knowing who’s in charge is the key to project success, no matter how good or bad that person supposedly is.

I don’t know if I fully agree with that, which is why I rolled these together.

2. Clear Project Goals

This success metric could also be self-evident, but when held up closely it can get lost in the shuffle. Often, we need to apply real, achievable metrics to our plans.

The most successful projects consider the goals and purposes at hand, because they are rallying points.

This why people like sports and competition so much: the goal is obvious. Win the Super Bowl. Win the World Cup. Win the World Series. Win the fantasy football league. Beat the competition.

What is the goal of your project? To construct a new building by the end of the year? To attend three different trade shows this year? What’s the purpose in doing each of those? It’s one thing to construct a building just for the sake of it–that’s expensive with lots of approvals needed. The purpose there is clear. But we don’t often apply that same thinking to a new sales, design, or marketing initiative. We may just make something because we can or because we’ve always done it without really analyzing the purpose and goal.

That’s how I felt when I was putting that big marketing strategy together. It just felt like an exercise, without people admitting it was an exercise or practice. I just wanted everyone to be honest about what the goal was. If it was for practice, I may have viewed it more as an opportunity to learn something new instead of trying to impress my boss.

I’m tempted to add in having a good project plan in place, but I don’t think that’s a key to success (as counterintuitive as it sounds). A talented team (see below!) with a clear vision doesn’t always need to adhere to every jot and tittle of a project plan. Of course, it also depends on the field you’re in. Marketing is different than construction, which is different than manufacturing.

3. A Good Team

There’s no doubt that a good team is important in any successful project. After all, a great leader can have a focused vision but if there’s no one to help him/her execute, then how will it get done? You need a team with the right skills to see the project all the way through–from strategy to execution. I don’t think this factor trumps number 2, however; you can have the most talented team in the world, but if they’re working in a hundred different ways, then what’s the point? How will they get anything done?

If you’re a team member, you have to also believe in what you’re making and that the market is asking for what you’re creating. Sometimes this is proven by hard numbers, other times it’s a desire for something you personally want to work on.

4. Support from management / your leadership team

When I was working on that big marketing plan, I could tell management didn’t necessarily have my back. Or the team’s back. There was too much confusion and indecision. I firmly believe that the most meaningful projects have the full backing of management. That, of course, means that the team has to trust management and respect their vision. That goes back to focus and clarity of vision.

Anything else?


Other elements in the research point to routine and expected things that still shouldn’t be ignored. We even touched on a few of them above:

All of those factors combined will help you have more successful projects with a productive team.

By the way, want to know what happened with the marketing strategy I put together? It wasn’t a complete failure. We executed on the parts that we could and let the rest die on the vine. So we did get some things done. It wasn’t as successful as your project will be with these factors in mind.

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