Let’s Talk IT Project Failure: Defining Success and Failure


We cannot talk about failure without talking about project success. The definition of these two constructs is mutually inclusive. ‘Success’, in general, is a relative concept and is dependent upon the achievement of certain parameters. The end objective to attain a particular state of accomplishment is perceived to be bifurcated into two mutually exclusive outcomes: ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

To most people, success implies achievement, whereas failure is the absence of success. Businesses perceive success with little more subjectivity. Here success is considered to be a state that leads to enhanced performance in comparison to predetermined benchmarks. The subjectivity is resultant of the inherent dynamic nature of the business environment. This creates uncertainty in factors that contribute towards the attainment of business goals and objectives.

A popular story that went down in Greek history, “The Battle of Thermopylae”, depicts a battle fought between an alliance of the Greek states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes. The king of Sparta fought the Persian invasion with a mere three hundred warriors. The passion to protect their people inspired them to challenge the force that unleashed havoc and dishelmed their outfit in no time. He was the lone warrior to spearhead an attempt to block the invasion, yet he lost the battle. However, he succeeded in inspiring the formulation of an alliance so great that it eventually threw back the Persians.

Success and failure are difficult to define and measure since they may mean different things to different people. An assumption that success can be quantified seldom holds true in the face of an ever-changing yardstick used to measure success. What might be considered to be a successful attribute today can be rendered unsuccessful under the influence of dynamic and multi-dimensional constraints.

A project is primarily implemented to target a predefined outcome, and it is imperative to measure the output in order to determine the benefit derived through the project. However, benefits realized do not necessarily add up to success. Project ‘success’ is different than ‘benefits realization’.

Benefits Realization: Benefits realization is the process of identifying, executing, and measuring benefits. Benefits are typically contributors to ROI. Benefits realization is a process initiated post implementation to track and measure the benefits. The process of benefits realization evaluates the benefits delivered in line with the organizational objectives. This also evaluates how well the project is delivered and the benefits required by business strategies in order to meet wider business goals, eventually leading to value creation.

Project Success: Project success can have endless definitions based upon the perspectives held by different stakeholders. Project sponsors may have a different interpretation as compared to the project team and so on.

What Is Project Success?

Throughout my career, I have concluded that projects have two distinct types of success: spoken success and unspoken success.

Unspoken Success: It is assumed that there is an inherent definition to success based on compliance with existing project parameters targeted to attain the desired outcome.

Spoken Success: This is subjectively defined success and is agreed upon as part of the initiation phase of the project. All the stakeholders define what success is and agree to uphold this as an imperative threshold that defines success.

Projects are a subset of the overall business environment that operates under numerous constraints and unpredictability. Moreover, every project is unique, with a unique mandate and circumstances. Hence there cannot be a generic measure applied across different projects and scenarios.

An attempt to formulate a generic measure and to gauge different projects will invariably lead to inaccurate assessment of project performance. This inconsistency is a result of the uniqueness inherent to every project, which in turn is a result of the unique constraints under which a project operates.

Unspoken Success

This occurs when projects are initiated without a clear statement of what will be regarded as success. It is implied that everybody thinks they know what success is. Unspoken success is based on project-related parameters, a few of which are below:

  1. Is the project concluded within budget?
  2. Is the project concluded within the defined schedule?
  3. Was the defined scope of the project completely delivered?

With unspoken success, everybody assumes that there is a default definition of success. In addition, different stakeholders may silently carve out their own definition of project success, which could be independent of the project parameters listed above. A few may even assume that the rest of the stakeholders share the same definition, which may not be an accurate assumption.

The project success extends beyond the narrow measure, which is based on cost and duration. Projects provide service to their clients, users, and sponsors. However, user satisfaction, contribution to the organizational knowledge pool, and value add to the business are some of the factors that should not be neglected while judging a project.

Spoken Success

Spoken success is when it is defined and agreed upon. There is a consensus on what success is. Herein success is defined subjectively. It is a healthy approach to measure success because it eliminates conflicting definitions. The assumptions, parameters, and definition are debated, negotiated, and agreed upon.

To conclude this perspective, it is safe to state that success should be defined and negotiated prior to the start of a project. This is a preventative measure to avoid conflict and disappointment as a result of disagreement on the definition of success. In addition, this acts to shield the project from internal struggles:

  1. Personal and political agenda
  2. Changes to project circumstances
  3. Fair judgement at the end of the project


‘Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value’, Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein quote summarize it. The outcome of a project cannot be declared successful just because it happens to comply with predefined parameters that define success. It is meaningful to draw an analogy with a watertight compartment to signify success as umpteen opportunities that lie between the states, empty to full. Thus it can be safely interpreted that the attainment of project objectives is always relative and dependent upon a set of dynamic assumptions wherein we can only gauge compliance but rarely possess the ability to measure the advantage derived from a specific success. 

At times a project is considered successful even if none of the targets are met in totem. On the other hand, there could be instances where a project is declared unsuccessful despite meeting all its objectives, resultant of a paradigm shift in the fundamental assumptions that inherently define parameters that are critical for success. Therefore project success is very subjective and can seldom be rigorously defined within the constraints of a multi-dimensional business environment.

Author: Adam Alami, PhD Fellow, IT University of Copenhagen

Adam Alami is a PhD fellow at the IT University of Copenhagen. Adam has a wealth of experience in information technology practices. He started his career as a software developer, then moved to business analysis and project management. His 20 years’ experience revolves around major business transformation projects and process improvement. He accumulated a wealth of cross industry experience in major projects in the areas of Enterprise Transformation, Integration, Migration, and Systems Modernization.

He has a track of academic achievements. He holds a Bachelor degree on Software Engineering from the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM) and a Master degree on Computing from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS).

Email: [email protected]



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