Why Projects Succeed: Defining Success

Why Projects Succeed is a blog series in which Slalom Business Architect Roger Kastner sheds light on key factors behind the art and science of successful project management and invites readers to discuss how they apply across different environments.

Slalom Consultant Roger Kastner

Roger Kastner is a Business Architect with Slalom Consulting who is passionate about raising the caliber of project leadership within organizations to maximize the value of projects

A while ago I wrote about the importance of Clear Business Objectives as a true north to keep big picture focus on, to base and prioritize decisions by, and to know when we have achieved success. I was recently thinking about how success gets defined but I wasn’t in the office nor facing a room full of clients and sponsors. Instead I was staring into the eyes of a different set of stakeholders: a team of nine-year-old soccer players at the end-of-the-season soccer party.

As I was preparing my season wrap-up speech, I started to think about how I as the coach defined success for the team. The league emphasizes having fun, so we’re told to tell our parents that we don’t keep score nor do we keep track of wins or losses. And of course, the parents keep score (I can turn to them at any point of a game and ask) and they keep track of wins or losses (we finished three wins, four losses, and one tie, or so I am told). I have never stressed winning, (which is a good thing because we don’t win many games), but instead, I defined success by those things that we could control, and I reminded the kids of our objectives as often as I could:

Coach: “What is the first rule of Space Monkey Soccer?”
Players: “Have fun.”
Coach: “What is the second rule of Space Monkey soccer?”
Players: “Be kind.”
Coach: “What is the third rule of Space Monkey soccer?”
Players: “Don’t sit on the ball.”
Coach: “What is the fourth rule of Space Monkey soccer?”
Players: “Zip it when the coach is talking.”

So, we nailed three of the four (the fourth rule wasn’t our strong suit).

We absolutely focused on the first and second rules because these were what we could control. Wins, losses, goals, these all depended on the quality of the team we faced and on other contributing factors outside of our control: weather, field surface, the amount of sugar that parents put into their kids before the game. We controlled our attitudes and our intensity. We controlled whether we forgave ourselves for mistakes, and if we gave our best effort. And if players congratulated each other at the end of the game and were smiling on their way to getting their post-game snacks, then we successfully achieved our goals.

And we did. We achieved those objectives that we could control and that I defined for ourselves at the beginning of the season.

So, when I started to address the Space Monkeys at our party, I started to tell them about Ryan Leaf, the former Washington State University football star and second overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft.

Now, if you are a WSU Cougar fan or familiar with the story of Mr. Leaf, you might not be connecting the dots between success and Ryan Leaf. For those of you who are not familiar with the story, I’ll try to be brief. (Coug fans, you might want to skip this next paragraph as it needlessly brings back pain, but read the following ones and your opinion of Ryan might change.)

Ryan Leaf is best known for being one of the most anticipated quarterbacks to enter the National Football League and failing to live up to the hype. Adding insult to injury, while he led the Washington State University Cougars to the Rose Bowl in 1998 as the PAC-10 Conference champions, the school’s first Rose Bowl in 67 years, he is often blamed for mismanaging the clock in the final seconds and losing the game by less than a touchdown. Whenever I’ve witnessed the friendly banter between a University of Washington and WSU alums, the Ryan Leaf insult usually trumps any retort the Coug can volley back at the Husky.

With all that “failure,” you might be wondering why I would be telling the kids about Ryan Leaf when talking about success.

Recently, Leaf was being interviewed as part of his book tour, and he said something very interesting. When asked about how he deals with failing so publicly, he responded by saying “Yes, I failed, but I failed at the highest level possible.”

What he didn’t say, but I will, is that Leaf reached a higher level of success than millions of pee wee football players ever did, and he reached a higher level of success than thousands of high school and hundreds of college quarterbacks ever did. He led his high school team to the state championship crown. He broke the PAC-10 single season touchdown passing record. He led WSU to the Rose Bowl and came in third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Leaf succeeded more than he failed, and his success rate at football is so much greater than 99.9% of his critics who complain from the couch.

So, is Ryan Leaf a success story or a story about failure?

The answer depends on how you define success.

“Don’t let others define success for you, always define what success means for yourself.”
–Roger Kastner, Space Monkey End of Season Party 2011

My lesson for the Space Monkeys, and for successful Project Managers, is to actively participate in how success is defined and to be sure your objectives are based on those factors you can control. If you allow others to define your success, you may be the next Ryan Leaf of the office or the playground. As I told my Monkeys, you cannot control everything, but you can control your effort and your attitude.

In the context of a project, Project Managers most likely do not have the latitude to define project goals by themselves, nor should they. Instead, success should be defined with full participation and agreement amongst sponsors and stakeholders, and everyone impacted should positively be involved in defining and accepting them.

Success should also be defined by those factors a Project Manager and project team can control. If your success is dependent on some outside force, you are no longer the master of your own destiny, and you have agreed to allow someone else define success for you.

Summary
I hope that Ryan Leaf never sat on the ball and always “zipped it” when the coach was talking. More to the point, I hope that he defined success for himself, and not let his critics define it for him. And on your projects, I hope you have the opportunity to participate in the definition of your goals. If not, I wish you luck and hope that you do not become the butt of many jokes in the future.

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About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

2 Responses to Why Projects Succeed: Defining Success

  1. Pilar Gomez says:

    Hi Roger, I am doing a Master research in the topic “Failure and success of complex IT projects”, in particular I am exploring the factors :risk and uncertainty management and leadership. I would be very interested in interviewing you for the research purposes. May I get in contact with you and explain you further? Regards, Pilar Gomez

    • Roger Kastner says:

      Hi Pilar,

      Thank you for reaching out. I would be happy to help out. I will reach out to you separately via email.

      Thanks,
      Roger

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