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Agile Development

Have You Been Defining Project Success Incorrectly?

by James Mitchell
on April 26, 2016

Done-but-not-DoneSeveral years ago, back when I was a project manager, I held a very simple view of projects. They had a beginning (when the contract was signed), a middle (the development) and an end (when it was delivered completed). Nothing sounds wrong there, and it is probably about 90% accurate. The problem is that a completed project does not equal success. The true beginning of a successful project occurs all the way back in the sales process, when you're first working to develop an understanding of the business need or problem driving the project. And the task of making sure that business need is successfully fulfilled can extend well after the delivery. 

As Customer Success/Experience professionals, we have a chance to bridge the gap between simply completing a project that meets the letter of the scope and delivering a solution that solves the original business need. But if you deliver something as done, how can it not really be done? As a do-it-yourselfer, I find that many times I head out to the local hardware store to purchase the required list of items to complete the project, only to end up executing a part of the project differently, causing the need for a return trip to the store.  

Done vs Complete vs Successful 

"'Begin at the Beginning,' the King said, very gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'" Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The difference between done and successful is the difference between checking off items on a to-do list and actually addressing the challenge that prompted you to write that to-do list in the first place. According to the Scrum Guides, "When a Product Backlog item or an Increment is described as 'Done', everyone must understand what 'Done' means." At first glance, that may seem laughable, yet I can tell you just having to do that speaks of the true volatility in something that is moving toward completion but in danger of not being successful. Similarly, if you don't understand that true project success and the potentially elusive "done" occurs when what is delivered meets the original business need, then you'll end up spinning your wheels on the service/support side of things with change order after change order. 

True Project Success through Well-Defined Criteria—at Every Stage 

The ever popular musical The Sound of Music has a song titled Do-Re-Mi where Maria and the Children sing "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start."  

I'd like to state it again, that project success occurs when the original business need is solved, NOT when the project is "complete" and delivered. The first question people typically ask after hearing this is how can you do that if the project requires changes that are not in scope in order to meet that lofty view of success. Make no mistakealong the way, a project is still likely to encounter scope changes or changes in the driving factors. In fact, I can almost guarantee that it will. Since we know it's going to happen, we can communicate it. 

Just don't lose sight of the goal. My dad once told me that if I wanted to mow straight lines I needed to focus on a fixed point on the fence and walk toward it. If I didn't do that, I shouldn't be surprised if the lines aren't straight. So grab the project handle, fix your eyes on solving the original need, and start walking. I could end here but would be remiss if I didn't prepare you for the biggest difficulty you'll encounter when you make this shift in perspective.  

The Ongoing Challenge – Culture Change 

Hopefully by now you see the solution is viewing success and completion differently. Even so, you still have one hurdle to overcome: this new view must be held by everyone in your organization, not just by you or you along with a select few others. Each person involved must understand that they are a very important piece in the success puzzle. Whether they are sales (defining the original need), engineers (developing a solution to solve it) or the customer service representative (answering questions after initial delivery), they can impact the ultimate success of the project. (If you'd like to read more about taking a customer-centric culture theory and putting it into practice, IJ Golding wrote about exactly that.) 

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James Mitchell
James is Aptera's Client Experience Manager and a member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA).
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