A special Ask-a-Project Manager feature with Patrice Embry: a reader writes in and we take a look at how we can define "success" in our projects.
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Issue #26

Ask-A-Project Manager: Defining Project Success 
with Patrice Embry

Happy Friday once again, fellow project managers! I'm excited to be introducing a new special feature in this issue of DPM(ish): Ask a Project Manager. I've asked friend and consulting digital project manager Patrice Embry of the PM Advice blog to help answer some questions we've gotten recently. This week, we're tackling the encompassing question of success in projects.

I was excited to see the topic of success brought up, because I've always struggled with that definition—projects can so easily turn out differently than we expect in budget, timeline, features, or launch date. Recently I worked on a project that got delayed for several months, and my contract ended before the project launched. Success isn't always a black-and-white concept, and it was encouraging to read through Patrice's take on this. I'll let her take it from here!

A reader writes:
How do I know if I'm succeeding as a PM? Do "terms of success" vary pretty widely depending on agency and project? 

Patrice answers:
At one point, I wanted to quit my job as a PM and become a carpenter, if only because I wanted to be able to start a job and actually know when it’s finished, and then know if it was successful because people would use the thing I made and not, like, die.  

I think “terms of success” is a perfect phrase to use here. There is a project, conceivably it has an end date, a budget, and a scope. And if you get to the end of the project and it’s on time, on budget, and delivers what it said it would, you’re “successful”. But when only a third of projects are considered successes, it’s not really a great measurement.

So then we’re forced to use less concrete measurements, and those can seem arbitrary and fluctuate too much from person to person. If you do project retrospectives (or POST-MORTEMS, I don’t care how morbid that sounds) then you might be able to see how people felt about the project as a whole, which can give you insight into your own management if you are self-aware enough to know what was under your control. If you get performance reviews by your manager, you might be able to see if she thinks you’re successful. But I have found that many of my managers wouldn’t have enough info to really be able to assess that themselves; they’re too far removed.

What does that leave us with? For many people, a severe case of Impostor Syndrome, yes. But you may have to define “terms of success” for yourself, and find a standard that’s within what you can control.

My standards are: if I kept everyone informed of overages, timeline issues, and red flags; if everyone on the team felt like they were supported; if I’ve been able to handle my stress at a reasonable level and my work/life balance has been acceptable to me; and if any client complaints were limited to project-related issues and not management-related issues—I’ve had a successful project. If I have more successful projects than unsuccessful, then I’m succeeding overall. “Simple” as that!

Want more advice?

Stay tuned for another few in a few weeks! Want your questions answered? Send your burning PM questions to us and we might address it in an upcoming issue! In the meantime, check out the PM Advice blog for more questions and answers to tide you over.

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