The Fundamental  5 Dimensions of a Project, Part 1: Defining Success

The Fundamental 5 Dimensions of a Project, Part 1: Defining Success

Hiya, and welcome to PM Happy Hour!

This post is based on our first podcast episode, which you can find out about at the link below. If you prefer to listen to the content rather than pouring through a 1000+ word article, you might hop over there and give it a listen. If you prefer the written word, then enjoy! We probably won’t be able to provide full articles like this for every podcast – unless you really want us to. If so, leave a comment and let us know that it’s of value!

001-The First 5 questions to ask whenever you start a new project (part 1/5)

On to our article…

“Hey, I got a new project!  OMG, now what?!”

We all know what that’s like, right? We usually don’t have the luxury of time when it comes to getting our head around a new project. Whether we are trying to shape a new opportunity into a viable engagement, kick off a new project, or righting a troubled one, we need to identify and clarify the key project parameters quickly.

This ability to rapidly assess a project and orient yourself is a skill that I’ve strived to impart in my training and mentorship engagements. To help do this, I developed a simple model I call the “Fundamental 5” dimensions of a project. This approach enables quick identification of 5 critical project dimensions you must have clear in order to really understand a project or project opportunity. It’s proven so useful, that I’ve even developed a 1 day training focused on this concept.

In short, if you don’t understand these 5 dimensions of a project, you don’t really understand the project or opportunity.

Over this 5-part series, Kate and I will be walking through each of the 5 points, then spending a little time on application. We will also share a couple anecdotal project stories to help drive some of the concepts home.

If you’re interested in having me walk you or your staff through this training personally, drop me an email at



A few common scenarios when you need to quickly understand the shape of a project include:

  • Scoping out a new project opportunity – putting form to the project and qualifying the concept
  • Kicking off a new project
  • Communicating a summary of the project to stakeholders, team members or partners
  • Taking over project management of an in-flight project
  • Quick assessment of a troubled project

Let’s get to it!


In my project management classes or when assessing candidates for PM positions, I often like to ask, “How do YOU like to define project success?”

I typically get answers like –

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Meeting the triple constraints
  • Meeting the project requirements

Honestly, it’s a bit of a trick question. You don’t define project success, your customer (sponsor / stakeholders) do. And if you don’t have a clear grasp on what their definition of success is from the very beginning, your chances of achieving success are, well, not good.



When I sit down for the first time with project sponsors or key stakeholders, especially in kickoff meetings, I like to start with one, simple question, and it goes like this –

“Clearly, we’ve read all the documentation (SOW / Charter / Business Case) and spoken with the right people to understand the details of this project. But I’d like to take a moment to put all that away and ask one simple question – can you tell me what the single most important thing is that has to happen for you to call this project a success?”

If the goals are clear and stakeholders well aligned, it should take 5 seconds for them to agree on the answer. More often than not, though, it’s not so clear. In very contentious projects or in situations where the project is poorly defined, this conversation can take the rest of the meeting – which is not necessarily a bad thing. If you and your stakeholders cannot even sort out what success looks like, how on earth can you ever get there? And what’s the point of talking about anything else until you sort out this point?

As you work to define this parameter, be sure the stakeholders are aligned. This conversation can easily slip into a laundry list of success criteria, but try to keep focus on what is most important, like this:

“Those are all important points that will lead to a successful outcome, and our project will be lacking if we hit those. But, if we could distill success down to the most important point, what would that sound like?”

As your success statement starts to come together, if you can at all manage, try to understand what that success means, personally, to your sponsor or stakeholders: their reputation? Their bonus this quarter? Developing credibility so they can launch a second product line? If you can understand the personal repercussion of project success (or failure!) for your sponsor and stakeholders, you will be better off.

It’s OK to not be SMART

What you often end up developing is not so much success criteria, but a success statement. Being well trained PM’s / Consultants / Business Development people, we often want to shape these statements in terms of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-based). But it’s OK – maybe even better – if the success statement is NOT stated in terms of a SMART goal. This is because forcing the SMART format can muddy the success statement by introducing less critical parameters. Our success statement is most effective if distilled to a single point for decision making.

For example, if my sponsors respond to this question with something like,

“Success for us is migrating to the new system with no customer impact.”

Clearly, minimizing customer impact is the most important goal. So, forcing the “T” for “time” in SMART may not be appropriate. If customer impact is most important, they may be OK sacrificing additional cost or time, if it means ensuring there is minimal customer impact. So, when there are major project decisions, you can bring the sponsors back to this point to ensure we are aligned. “I know you wanted to go live by Christmas, but we can greatly reduce risk of customer impact if we push that to after New Years. Your sponsor said at the beginning that minimizing customer impact was your most success factor, so does it make sense to push out in order to meet that success factor?”

Alternatively, the success criteria for the very same project could be stated like this:

“Success for us is migrating to the new system before our contract on the old system expires.”

Time is the driving criteria, so we need to use that as the driving factor, and base key project decisions on that. Maybe we can trim some scope or invest some more money and resources to speed up the project in order to ensure we meet the deadline.

The same project could even have this success criteria:

“Success for us is getting to the new system so we can realize our expected operational cost reduction of X% per month, starting in next financial quarter”

And so it goes. Of course we need to address all factors of a project (cost, schedule and other points), and the rest of the Fundamental 5 model will cover that for you.

To try and drive the point home, you will often find that success criteria defined through this method is single dimensional, which is exactly what you want – you want to help your client define the single most important success factor, so you can use that for future decision making.


The statement of success will drive the success criteria, which will in turn define the acceptance criteria. But, understanding the success definition is only part of what we’re after. The second part, which is just as important, is this:

“If this is success, who will determine that we have achieved it? And how will they do it?”

Here are some examples and follow-on driving questions:

  • “We will determine the level of customer impact through our account managers who interface with our customers.”
    • “OK, how can we engage with those account managers and understand what they will be looking for and who they will talk with?”
  • “We will determine the level of customer impact through results of our satisfaction survey, which is provided to customers at the end of every call.”
    • “OK, can we get a copy of that survey so we can understand how you define customer satisfaction? And what your current metrics are, so we can measure any change?”
  • “Success for us is reducing operating costs for this service, which is measured by our assigned financial operations analyst”
    • “OK, can we speak with the analyst so we can understand all the elements that go into measuring this service’s operational costs?”

From here, it should be straightforward to ensure that those who need to confirm that you’re successful are involved in defining the project, or at least the acceptance criteria.

Failing to clearly identify who holds the keys of project success and/or acceptance will often not cause issues until later in the project, when it’s harder to fix. So, “Begin with the end in mind,” as has been suggested by people better known than me. And that end is with the person who accepts or rejects the product of your project. 

And that’s it! No we have defined the first of the Fundamental 5 questions you need to ask about your project:

  1. What is success for this project, and who determines that we’ve met it? And How?


Once you have success defined, keep it nailed to the prow of your project – on your status reports, your key communications, the top of your risk log and wherever else possible and appropriate to reinforce it. Use it as your guiding principle to judge project decisions by; does this get us closer or further from our success statement? A clearly stated guiding principle like this can be quite useful with a diverse stakeholder team who can pull the project in different directions.


There is a specific case where projects can get into a lot of trouble. If the sponsors are not defined, or if they change during the course of the project, the success statement absolutely must be revisited. Of the troubled projects that I have helped remediate, the worst problems were due to the sponsor or key stakeholders not being clearly defined or aligned with the definition of success.


A few keys to successfully defining and using a success statement –

Probing Questions to use when defining success…

  • Why does this mean success for you?
  • What is your overall strategy in this area, and how does success in this project support that broader strategy?
  • Do all the key stakeholders feel the same way about this being success? Does it make sense to bring her/him/them into the discussion?

You may be in trouble if…

  • Your sponsor cannot describe project success in one statement
  • It’s not clear who will confirm that the project has met its success criteria
  • The sponsor and/or key stakeholders have changed and you have not revisited the success statement
  • You don’t know what the sponsor and key stakeholders have to gain or lose by project success or failure

A couple principles for success

  • Have explicit success criteria, and use it as your guiding principle
  • If your sponsor is not solid, your project is not solid

If you are already well-engaged in a project, don’t worry. It’s never too late to go back and define, refine, or clarify the definition of success. You may be surprised to find it’s not exactly what you expected, but it’s better to find that out now rather than later.

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