Assess project success with a project scorecard

Consultants often gauge the success of a project by whether the client is satisfied. But to give a more honest picture of what went well and what can be improved for the next project, a project scorecard can be a useful tool.

When a project ends, many project teams struggle to determine whether they were successful. Knowing how a project ended in terms of its deadline and budget tells only part of the story. If a project team delivers a poor-quality product on time and within budget, it still should not be seen as a success.

On the flip side, if quality is extremely important, the sponsor may consider the project a success if the deliverables meet the quality criteria, even if the project was also late and over budget.

To help determine the success of a project, you can use a scorecard that takes into account the criteria that need to be met for the project to be a success. Scorecards allow you to establish and gain agreement on the important criteria that determine a project’s success. Here’s how to use scorecards in your project success measurements and what issues to resolve early in the scorecard process.

First of two parts
This is the first installment of a two-part series that shows you how to assess whether your project was successful. This first part introduces you to the scorecard process, while the second part will focus on the issues you will encounter when trying to add multiple success criteria to your scorecard.

Ask the client sponsor
Perhaps the simplest way to know whether your team was successful is to simply ask your client’s sponsor. The sponsor would take into account the budget, deadline, quality, and so on, make a mental determination of which criteria were more important, and offer a straight "yes" or "no" response.

The problem with this approach is that it offers the sponsor only a black or white response with no shades of gray. Generally, the sponsor will be happy about how some things turned out and disappointed with other aspects. Because of this, the sponsor may not be willing to be slotted into a simple "yes" or "no" answer.

At the last company where I worked, we started off with this approach for our small enhancement projects. We asked the requesting clients (sponsors) whether they were happy with the results. Seems simple enough, right? What I soon found was that this simple question placed a burden on the client. They always answered “yes,” they were happy. However, I knew that they weren’t always. This question was not giving them enough options.

To work around this problem, you can still ask just one question but allow the answer to be expressed in a range. For example, you can ask your sponsors, "How satisfied were you with the overall success of the project?" and allow them to express their answers on a scale of five to one. This gives sponsors some discretion. If they were totally satisfied, they can score the project a five out of five. If they were happy about most things but unhappy about some, they can rate the team a four out of five. This allows the sponsors to provide more shades of gray, while still keeping things simple.

In real life
We took this approach at my last company after realizing that the “yes” or “no” approach was not working. This time we let the clients answer on a scale of one to five. Much of the feedback was still a five, but there were some fours and threes as well, which gave us a better idea of the overall success of the project as well as areas where we needed to improve.

A more comprehensive survey
To gather enough feedback to be helpful, your survey needs to have more than one question. For example, you should have multiple questions that ask, on a scale of one to five, how satisfied the individual was with such components as:
  • Team communication
  • The quality of the deliverables
  • Whether the team responses were timely
  • Whether the team was knowledgeable in the business area

This survey should also be completed by more than one person whenever it is possible to do so. You could ask the sponsor and a number of other impacted stakeholders to provide feedback.

In real life
In my prior real-life example, I used the single-question survey for small enhancements. For larger projects, it makes sense to ask more questions. In those cases, I typically sent a five- to 10-question survey to all major clients and stakeholders to gauge their overall satisfaction with the project team and the solution I provided. This was still easy for the clients to complete, but it provided much more information on my team’s performance.

Adding multiple success criteria
Of course, to get an accurate view of the success of the project, you’ll want to combine the survey metrics with other basic information regarding budget and deadline. As an example, the team may have been within 5 percent of budget and hit its deadline. It may also have received an overall consolidated 4.1 out of 5.0 on the survey. The question, then, is whether this was a success or not.

To be able to understand these results, the project team should establish a reasonable target number before sending the survey out. For the budget and deadline, this probably means that the project was completed within your estimates, plus or minus your tolerance levels. For survey results, you could establish a success minimum, for example, an average of 3.5 on a five-point scale.

Defining your success minimum leads to some issues that you will need to resolve before beginning the scorecard process. For example, if you have multiple success criteria, how do you combine them all together? If you are utilizing cost, delivery date, and a client survey, how do you know what is most important? If your deadline was extremely important, for example, you may find that the project was successful if it hit the deadline, even if it was over budget. The resolutions to these issues will be on a case-by-case basis.

In real life
When I worked at a large beverage company, our group did a great job on scorecards. We gained agreement with the sponsor on a balanced set of five or six project objectives. We collected data on a monthly basis to see how we were doing. When the project ended, we never had a disagreement with the sponsor on whether the project was successful. The sponsor agreed ahead of time to the success criteria, and we were able to use the scorecards to show how we performed against those criteria. Every project was not a total success, but at least we had agreement on the level of success.

A final word
Is your project a success or not? Simple metrics are easy to capture, but they do not leave much room for telling the entire story on a project. In general, the simpler your metrics, the harder it is to look at shades of gray. If your success is based strictly on your sponsor’s feedback, you can end up in an all-or-nothing situation.

The more aspects of the project you take into account, the more sophisticated you need to be in terms of how the separate criteria are ranked within the overall success level.

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