In Step with Projects

In Pace with Progress

Martin Samphire: Project Success Is a Relative Concept


Journalist: Yu Yanjuan  |  Source: PMR  |  Updated:2021.03.12

(Note: This is PMR’s 2nd interview with Martin Samphire. The first interview is on the topic of sponsorship while this one is about project success) Link to the 1st interview:

Introduction to the interviewee:

Martin Samphire is CEO of 3pmxl Ltd and Chair of APM Governance SIG. Under his leadership, the APM Governance SIG has developed guidelines for Governance of Project Management, including Directing Change, Governance of Co-Owned Projects, Sponsoring Change and Directing Agile Change. He authored Section 19 of the 2nd edition of the Gower Handbook of Programme Management (2016) - the section was regarding Governance of organisational project management and projects. He is also a member of a voluntary group, the P3M Data Club looking to improve Business Integrated Governance (BIG). 

He has over 30 years’ experience in management consulting, change, project, programme and portfolio implementation in both the private and public sectors - in the UK and internationally. His passion for delivery includes putting in place appropriate governance, frameworks (e.g. Agile or hybrid where appropriate) and cultures to motivate delivery such that the delivery teams have a greatest chance to succeed. 

Project success is a relative concept
Q1. Since we are going to talk about APM Conditions for Project Success, to start with, how do you define project success? 
Martin Samphire: The success rate for projects is often quoted at around 20%.  The APM publication from 2015, “Conditions for Project Success” found that while “over 90% considered their projects to be, to some degree, successful, but just 22% of projects wholly met their original objectives”.

History has shown that some projects that are perceived as successful exceeded their cost and time envelope. And others that met their time and cost objectives have been regarded as failures. So, success has been a relative concept and very much a judgement or perception by individual stakeholders – and often the judgement is made at the end of a project even where there was little discussion or agreement at the outset of what would constitute success for the key stakeholders.  

Some of this perception difference can be explained by the relative roles, for example:
• The project manager is often judged by the “iron triangle” – was the project output completed to time, cost, and functionality objectives?
• The sponsor should be judged on whether the desired outcome (the purpose) was achieved. This should include whether the desired benefits were realized, Of course the point of measurement could be significantly downstream of the project output being delivered and put to use. And many sponsors have moved on before.
• The contractor – did they make a decent / desired profit?
• Local stakeholders – for example – did the project respect environmental, social and sustainability considerations? 

The outcome is the key success measure for a project
Q2. Some experts even make distinctions between project success and project management success. What’s your view about it?
Martin Samphire: Some do differentiate between the success of the “project” and “project management”. In my experience, project management success is usually a measure of how well the overall management process followed good practice (irrespective of the project outcome). Whilst this has some merit, especially to learn lessons and reinforce good practice, it often only focuses on the project manager delivery role (T/C/F) and ignores the sponsor role.  

Projects are a means of meeting strategic goals, so the ultimate measure of project success should be about the outcome. I believe the ‘outcome’ is the only ‘value’ measure – and the only measure that can tell whether the business case stacked up. And this measure of success is exactly the success measure for a sponsor.  

So, for me, the outcome is the key success measure for a project – did the company’s performance and value improve such as better market share, profitability, reputation, societal improvement, etc.?  And this success criteria should be discussed and agreed at the project outset – even if it changes during the project duration. The purpose and outcome, the ’why’ of the project, must drive all activities and be meaningful for all key stakeholders involved to get best performance. 

APM’s 12 factors for project success
Q3. What are the 12 conditions for project success listed by APM? What is your understanding about each one? 
Martin Samphire: The APM Conditions for Project Success (2015) outlined 12 factors for success.

The majority of these 12 factors are to do with good governance – both on project and enterprise level. I sometimes use these 12 factors to carry out a rough and ready assessment of a project or an organization to see how well they stack up. Few, in my experience, get high marks for all 12 – and this is the point: we need projects and enterprises to excel in all 12 at the same time; otherwise the weak link often contributes to failure. 

Q4. The 12 factors s accounts for project success in different percentage. Right?
Martin Samphire: Yes – the fact that no two projects are the same, the environment is different, and the people involved are different present the management of each project with unique challenges, so a “cook-book recipe” approach to management of projects is unlikely to provide consistent success. However, the research (and my experience) shows that certain of the 12 factors have a disproportional impact on project success – mainly directly or related to governance. 

The APM Conditions for Project Success (2015) suggests the 5 most influential factors, when taken together, are:
• Effective Governance – clear roles, responsibilities, accountabilities, reporting lines and communications. Also, regular reviews of progress and forecast of both outputs and outcomes (gate reviews). 
• Goals and Objectives – a clear vision articulated to all that is rigorously aligned to corporate strategic objectives, so the purpose is clear and passionately pursued. 
• Competent project teams – competent project professionals in all core roles, especially the sponsor and project manager role. They must have the necessary competence, standing and experience in the characteristics and approach used for the specific project. 
• Commitment to project success – all parties and stakeholders need to remain committed to the purpose, desired outcome, and success. This applies crucially to the investing organizational Board and senior members of suppliers’ organizations.
• Planning and Review – pre-planning needs to be thorough and resist moving to “build” too early. Regular reviews and re-prediction of final output and outcome must be carried out – and acted upon. 

Most project success factors are related to governance 
Q5. To promote project success, what should organizations and individuals do? Would you please offer some suggestions?
Martin Samphire: Most of the key factors that influence success (see above) are related to good governance practice. Each project must establish a unique governance approach that is most suited to the characteristics of the specific project. To do this though, requires the parent organization to be culturally agile and supportive of all things that are good governance of project management. That may require an organizational level of maturity that many organizations do not attain. Also, main Board members need to be role models and lead good governance practice. Unfortunately, many project managers and sponsors will have to adapt to the limitations of their organizational culture, and Board members, to succeed.  

Furthermore, I and the APM Governance Specific Interest Group (SIG) has established 10 golden rules for good governance practice in an organization to improve the chance of success.
The success rate on shorter-term projects was much higher than longer-term projects
Q6. Faced with disruption and change in the VUCA era, conditions for project success must have evolved. So what changes do you think should be made to APM Conditions for Project Success (2015)?Have you read other research results about project success conditions? 
Martin Samphire: Most recent research into project success comes to similar conclusions as above – that good governance, strong sponsorship and supportive organizations are essential conditions for success.

With the advent of COVID-19, many have found that they have needed to change direction and approach fundamentally on some projects – adaptability and agility are now crucial skill for all project professionals. Few projects find that the environment that they are delivering into at the outset of the project remains the same by the end. Interestingly, one of the findings (that was not publicized much) from the APM 2015 report was that the success rate on shorter-term projects was much higher than longer-term projects. This is logical as the quicker a project delivers:
• the less the opportunity for the context or environment of the project to change
• less time for delivery parties to consider changes to scope
• better learning opportunities for the project team to build into the next project or iteration as the project team goes through the project lifecycle quickly 
• lower turnover of staff – on short-term projects (especially agile) often the same staff define and deliver, so they stay with the project from beginning to end.

In particular, during 2020, we have found that many traditional organization structures are too siloed and disconnected from other parts of an organization – relevant data acquisition and information flow is incumbered and inflexible. With the dynamic environment we now have, we need clear governance nodes and a simpler data model to underpin information flow so that issues can be raised and decisions made quicker.  

The APM is currently carrying out a refresh of the 2015 findings and will update t APM Conditions for Project Success (2015) in the near future. In my opinion, things that might be added in an update to the APM research includes: 

• Focusing more on outcomes and benefits, rather than outputs (project deliverables)
• Focusing more on collaboration – with multiple parties often engaged in projects, there is an inherent need for all to collaborate effectively to deliver the best outcome
• Breaking large endeavors down into a programme of short projects – using more of a programme management / agile (for appropriate elements) or hybrid approach.  This approach markedly reduces the risk of wastage and failure of the overall endeavor. 
• Focusing on sustainability within the purpose statement and delivery – and built into the governance regime
• The need for the organization leaders (Board) to set the appropriate tone for Ethics and Culture in support of projects
• Recognizing diversity of project team members, particularly to mirror the diversity of the delivery environment
• Digitalization and data-driven decision making
• Dealing with how to achieve and assure good governance once AI (Artificial Intelligence) is being used extensively on projects. Some reports say that 80% of today’s project management tasks could be automated by 2030. 
• Integrated governance – improving decision quality and speed by reporting using the same accredited sources of data across an organization for role-based reporting – and focused upon the prediction / forecast of future outputs and outcomes rather than overfocus on historical reporting 

Governance must be tailored to different needs
Q7. Would you please elaborate on Integrated governance?
In the UK, I am part of a small group who has developed the concept of Business Integrated Governance (BIG). We find that governance in an organization is often broken down into specialized areas (e.g. Projects, Operations/ BAU, Finance, Legal), but these are often siloed, leading to difficulties and conflicts that reduce the effectiveness or efficiency of the organization. Governance must be tailored to different needs while allowing overall integration.

Business Integrated Governance (BIG) provides a governance framework with clear accountability nodes that is integrated with the underpinning information flows and data model for business as usual (bau) and projects, programmes and portfolios to enable the organization to achieve its strategic goals and outcomes. These Accountability Nodes clearly differentiate accountability for bau, business outcomes of change and product / output delivery of change. These Nodes are typically where there is a business case or a business plan against which to hold groups or individuals accountable and include business unit leadership, operational teams, together with key project, programme and portfolio roles.  More information about BIG can be found at Praxis and Business Integrated Governance - Praxis Framework

Follow Us


Scan the qr code to pay attention to our official WeChat.


Click on the left image to enter our linkedin page.

京公网安备 11010202007990号