Define your project goals and success criteria

By Jane Suchan, PMP

Defining project success seems simple — deliver on time and on budget. But are those really the success factors that are most important to your customer, the project sponsor? Isn't it more important that the project deliver tangible business results?

As a project manager, you may think that delivering business results isn't your concern — that it's the customer's problem to solve. A standout project manager, however, is one that takes the time to partner with the customer, understand the business drivers, and care enough to ensure that the project they lead delivers the business results for which it was designed. That is project success.

Key performance indicators

Delivering a successful project starts with taking a step back and understanding business drivers: the problem or opportunity that precipitated the project. Key performance indicators (KPIs) (sometimes called key success indicators, or KSIs) is a common term for criteria used to measure the benefits of a project. The KPIs are the reason that the project was launched, and they should be foremost in your mind when you are scoping the project and setting project goals. These project management indicators are:

  • Established by the customer at the beginning of the project and listed in order of priority.
  • Directly related to and supported by business goals.
  • Able to provide the basis for critical decision-making throughout the project.
  • The basis on which the product will be accepted by the customer at the end of the project.
  • Measurable.

If a KPI is going to be of any value, there must be a target and a way to accurately quantify it. "Increase sales" is useless as a KPI without some way to distinguish between today's sales figures and the target figures. A more effective KPI would be "Increase same-store year-over-year sales by 15%."

It would be optimal if the customer handed you a list of project goals and success criteria when you were brought on board as the project manager. But more often than not, it falls to you to work with the customer to define them. You may need to push and prod a bit to get the information you need, but without it, you're operating in the dark.

Define your project goals and success criteria

You should ask the customer several questions:

  • "What does success look like?"
  • "How do I know I've completed the project?"
  • "How do I know I've done a great job?"
  • and finally, "How will all this be measured?"

You'd be surprised at how many project sponsors are stumped by these questions, which is all the more reason why you should ask before the project work proceeds. Answers to these questions become the backbone for project goals and success criteria.

Establishing the goals of the project will answer the question, "How do I know I'm done?" because goals should clearly state (at a high level) what the project will deliver. Project goals should be easily understood and should directly support the KPIs.

The project success criteria can then be derived by answering the question, "How do I know I've done a great job?" Just checking off tasks on the project schedule isn't enough. The success criteria speaks to the quality of the completed job and specifics about how the goals are met. After they're defined, you should revisit the success criteria throughout the project life cycle to ensure that the project is on track to meet the goals.


KPI: Reduce infrastructure costs by 10% by consolidating servers into one centralized data center.

Project goal: Move 25 servers from Location A to Location B.

Project success criteria:

  • Move completed by end of Q4
  • Location A vacated and lease cancelled by Nov. 30
  • No customer downtime during regular business hours, M–F, 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Pacific Time

Going the extra mile?

Let's talk a moment about "gold plating," the practice of exceeding the customer's expectations. It may be tempting to go the extra mile to make the product even better, to beat the KPIs, or exceed the project success criteria. However, this is a quick way to increase scope and negatively affect your project schedule and budget. Don't let the urge to do better than 100% trip you up. This is not to say that you shouldn't speak up if you have a great idea. If you have ideas about making the product better, discuss them with the customer and be prepared to quantify how these ideas will affect the project if they are implemented.

Measuring and reporting

You should regularly measure and report three standard project reporting criteria. The first criterion is time, which you can measure by tracking milestones and variance from projected completion dates. The second one is cost, which you measure by tracking the amount of effort and money expended. The third one is progress toward goals and success criteria. Measures for all of these three criteria should be included in status reports to stakeholders.

You can measure and report some project success factors throughout the life of the project. In the preceding example, you could measure and report progress toward the goal of moving 25 servers by starting with the first server moved. You could include this information in the regular status updates that you provide to your stakeholders and project sponsor. You may want to develop a scorecard or dashboard to make it easy for everyone involved in the project to understand where things stand.

Reporting progress along the way allows both the project team and stakeholders to see progress toward meeting agreed-upon goals. Not only does this show how far the team has progressed, which can be a morale booster, but it also clearly shows how far they have to go, which can be motivating.

When the project is completed and the end product transferred to the customer, they will measure success based on the KPIs. If you have done the same along the way, success is ensured.

About the author     Jane Suchan is a senior project manager with experience in managing large-scale projects and developing project management methodologies for telecommunications, IT, banking, and nonprofit fundraising. Jane is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and is based in Seattle, Washington.

Applies to:
Project 2003