How to lead projects to success
To answer the question "What are the success factors for projects?", it is not a bad idea to first rephrase the question as "What causes projects to fail?“ According to an empirical study conducted by the personnel service provider Hays (1) in 2015, almost every sixth project in companies fails. For the study, executives and managers from the three central departments of IT, Research & Development/ Production Planning and Finance & Accounting were surveyed. 72% of the respondents cited unrealistic project planning, 67% gave the reason as the failure to make important decisions and 64% mentioned a lack of cooperation between relevant departments as reasons for project failure.
A study by the German Association for Project Management e. V. (GPM) and the PA Consulting Group from 2008 (2) concludes that strong project managers who are integrated into the organisation, clear goals and good communication are most relevant for the successful completion of projects. According to the GPM studies of 2006 and 2004 (3), reasons given by project managers for not achieving objectives include: unclear requirements and objectives, lack of resources at the start of the project, inadequate project planning, lack of qualified personnel and competence disputes between teams. It is noticeable that the first three reasons fall within the time frame of the project start (project preparation) and that there is a lot of "human interaction" in the project teams. Many of the reasons given for failure are in the area of interpersonal relationships and communication. Success factors such as the right project management method or equipment with the appropriate project management software are hardly ever mentioned.
It stands to reason that unclear formulation of project goals and requirements undermines project success. Clearly defined processes for agreeing objectives, clear project requirements agreed between the project leader and management and consistent clarity about project objectives for the entire team are given as success factors here. In addition, target control should take place through consistent change request management (2). A change request (4) is a formal request for a change in, for example, the project objective, a sub-objective or the processes to achieve an objective. Change requirements force the project management team to think through the details of the intended change and thus help manage the inherent risks of the change. A clear set of requirements needs to be developed with the client or the project owner so that it is clear what does and what doesn’t need to be delivered.
In the Hays study, one of the reasons given for project failure is unrealistic project planning. There is often a big gap between aspiration and reality. There is a fine line between high expectations and unrealistic goals. It is important to first define clear goals and requirements, choose the best way to achieve them, determine resources and estimate the workload of the individual team members (5). What changes might occur and what influences might exist that cannot be clearly foreseen (e.g. stakeholder impact)? Are the estimates of deadlines too optimistic? Are there sufficient resources? Many sides are involved or affected in a project. Sometimes stakeholders exert enormous time pressure. However, one should not give in to this if these expectations are completely unrealistic. With the right risk management strategy, common risks such as unrealistic schedules, changes to the project scope and work that goes beyond the original project scope can be prevented. Ultimately, it is always prudent to leave room for unplanned improvisations and developments.
In order for important decisions to be made in the course of the project, the project manager must not only be decisive, but also have a strong position in the company as well as in the project team or with the stakeholders. According to the Hays study, project managers with the best aptitude and very good soft skills should be selected first. There must be a clear understanding of project success between management and project leader. In addition, the project leader must have real decision-making authority, even in the case of resource conflicts. Incentive systems and/or career paths also need to exist for the project manager.
A lack of cooperation between those involved in a project can be like sand in the gears of an engine. Nothing runs "smoothly" any more while important energy and motivation can be wasted in unnecessary debates. The motivation of all participants decreases and the success of the project becomes more and more remote. According to a GPM study (6), good cooperation occurs especially among project staff with many years of experience and a solid project size (more than 50 employees). Especially in knowledge-intensive projects, e.g. in the IT sector, the tendency towards cooperation is lower. Relationship management was found to be more prevalent among people who work exclusively on a project basis and this form of behaviour also tends to occur in non-knowledge-intensive projects. The loyalty of project managers increases with many years of project experience and age. It is also greater in longer projects. Project management can support cooperative behaviour with certain measures. These include kick-off events and getting to know each other at the beginning of the project, regular fixed events throughout the project, continuous professional communication and joint activities during free time. All such measures are shown to increase the success of the project.
According to GPM (3), poor communication between project participants is one of the most significant reasons why projects fail. Therefore, great importance should be attached to an open communication style not only on the formal level (reporting and documentation), but also on the informal level. In addition to tools such as forums and video conferencing systems, "places of communication" such as coffee corners, shared project offices or meeting rooms increase project success in companies. It is essential that project managers and project leaders maintain open communication with stakeholders, clients and the project team. They should lead by example.
Another critical success factor is resource planning, which must be done by project management before the project begins. Personnel, money and time are the most important resources so that a project can start at all and ultimately be crowned with success. For this purpose, a knowledge database should be created in companies from which the management or resource manager can identify the skills, availability, limitations and location of the skilled workers (7). This increases the likelihood that the resource manager will be able to assemble the best team through a mix of employees with different skills and experience.
1 From rigid processes to agile projects, Companies in the digital transformation, An empirical study by Pierre Audoin Consultants and Hays, 2015, Link
2 Engel Claus, Tamdjidi Alexander, Quadejacob Nils, Projektmanagement Studie 2008 - Erfolg und Scheitern im Projektmanagement, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Projektmanagement e. V., Link
3 Success Factors of Project Management, Project Management Handbook, Link
4 What is a change request?, Freshservice, Link
5 Bito expertise, With the right pre-planning to project success, Link
6 Kooperatives Verhalten in zwischenbetrieblichen Projekten, Abschlussbericht Forschungsauftrag der GPM, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Projektmanagement e.V., July 2011, Freie Universität Berlin, Link,
7 10 Ways to improve resource management and allocation, November 2019, Kimble Applications Ltd, Link.