Some Obvious (And Not So Obvious) Factors That Lead To Project Success

By: Scott Converse

Progressively, the 21st century workplace is becoming more project focused, and projects are no longer the exclusive domain of engineers, project managers, and construction professionals. What is the reason for this increased focus? Simple: projects are the building blocks of change. They help to create the positive change or improvement that organizations wish to achieve. As a result, if you wish to be viewed as a successful business professional, it is becoming more and more important that you understand the variables that affect project success and failure.

We know that in the field of project management there are some universal constraints or drivers that impact project deliverables; they include cost, time, scope, quality, risk, and resource availability. We also know that human dynamics such as communication, influence, and leadership play an important role in project success. An applied research study that began in the 1990s and spanned over a decade was performed to help understand key factors that led to successful project outcomes. The results were illuminating.

The goal of a tollgate review is to make a critical decision: whether or not the firm should continue investing in the project.

One of the counter-intuitive findings was that the overall length of a project does not have as strong a correlation to project success or failure as does the duration between tollgate reviews. Projects that take a long time to complete can be very successful, while some short projects can be utter failures. A better indicator was the duration of time between yes/no reviews of the project, or how frequently business leaders are meeting to make the go/no-go determination on whether to continue to support the project and move forward. Projects where this go/no-go decision was made monthly were more likely to succeed than projects that had semi-annual reviews or no review at all. It’s important to note that a tollgate review meeting has a much different goal than a simple status update meeting; while the goal of a status update is to share information on past and future project activities, the goal of a tollgate review is to make a critical decision: whether or not the firm should continue investing in the project.

These findings suggest that an important planning exercise should take place at the kickoff of any project: coordinate the schedules of key decision-makers in the organization, the project sponsor, and the project manager, then schedule in advance tollgate review meeting times. An important question that gets asked early in a project’s lifecycle is when will the project get completed. Another equally, if not more important, question decision-makers should be asking is when and how often meetings will take place to determine whether to continue investing in the project.

You can learn more project management techniques to help you plan, implement, and complete projects of all sizes in Project Management: Planning, Scheduling, and Control, now in-person and online.


Scott Converse

Scott Converse teaches Process Improvement and Project Management programs for the Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional & Executive Development. To learn more about these programs, view our Lean Six Sigma and Project Management Certificates.