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A project's success is not defined by time or budget!



If consultants and implementation teams cared about customer success, we'd remove the idea of "on time and on budget" as a project's primary measure of success! By adopting it, we've enslaved ourselves to the project's budget and time constraints rather than resolving the customer's business challenges.

Field-based project teams translate "on time and on budget" into behaviors that we know lead to bad project outcomes, not success. When the focus is "on time", they hurry to make a deadline despite the deliverable's questionable quality. A focus "on budget", creates sensitivity around change which, as we discover more about the project's true challenges, is the precise thing we need to adjust our course accordingly.

In an industry based solely on the transformation of customer dreams into business reality, we must have something better.


The "on time and on budget" illustrates a flaw in our thinking by missing the only thing that really matters, achieving a successful outcome for both the customer and the service provider. It's a shame that these objectives seem to resurfaces as the project's true priorities, only at the point we realize that they might not happen. From that moment forward, "on time and on budget" becomes secondary, and in some cases, disappears entirely.

With this sudden shift in priorities we rush to create strategies that are ill-informed such as giving away hours, letting the customer dictate the project's direction or rushing to meet a deadline that nobody really cares about. These mistakes lead to more errors, customer escalation, lower project margins and more importantly, consultant burnout. What we need is a definition of success that the entire project team (customer and service provider) that gives a field-based team direction and purpose in almost any circumstance.


The military has a concept known as "Commander's Intent", which has become a popular technique for providing this kind of clarity of purpose in the face of real adversity. The originating concept was that Commander's Intent conveyed the essence of the mission's goal such that even amidst total chaos, every remaining soldier will endeavor to carry it out regardless of rank.

In terms of professional services, the idea of Commander's Intent would means providing the project team with an unequivocal reminder of the project's objectives. In my last services firm we took on the challenge of creating such guidance. After many hours of thinking, we agreed as a company to use the following definition of success for every projects.

1. Make money; and

2. Earn a customer reference

It might seem overly simplified, but its strength is its simplicity.


Professional Services, by it's very definition, is the provision of a service to a paying customer. As such, our service must be "of value". If it isn't, then we shouldn't be charging for it. If you are a services team inside a product company running at cost neutral or even at a loss, you can adjust this goal to say, "1. Achieve the project's desired financial outcome." Either way, the very existence of our firm is only assured, if we can turn a profit either directly or indirectly through the services we provide. 

Amidst the chaos and customer pressure, project teams have to remember that every project should make money. This keeps them focused on their obligations to the service provider. Something that is often lost while working with customers on their objectives. It is a reminder that unless we have performed poorly, our hourly service is worth something and should be compensated.

Alone this measure creates an intolerable imbalance that must be corrected. 


If we just make money without making customers happy then we will soon be out of business. Many companies focus on customer satisfaction as this counterbalance, but the "on time and on budget" clouds the answer. If we ask a customer, "Were we on time and on budget?", the most common answer is, "No." Almost every project changes its budget, scope or timeline after it starts because both the finish line and the path to it are defined in the project's early stages. Hence, by making the necessary budget, scope and time adjustments to help the customer succeed, it becomes impossible to meet with the original definition of "on time and on budget" success.

The real measure of a customer's value from a project lies in something much simpler. "Will you vouch for our ability to lead projects to successful outcomes?" The response to this is far more meaningful than a net promoter score and far more transportable across different service providers and service types. If after receiving our service, you won't vouch for us as a trustworthy firm then we've done something wrong.


There's a deliberate dichotomy between these two objectives. We want them to compete because that's what creates balance for the customer and the service provider. We all know hundreds of other metrics we could throw into the idea of "project success", but there isn't any need. If you think like a Chief Financial Officer and imagine a project team has just walked back into the office after four months in the field. What do you think the CFO wants to know? Did we make money and did we gain a customer reference. Just one of these metrics is good, but both is terrific. Needless to say that none, would be a disaster.

I've often discussed a third objective that is not listed above. While achieving profit and a customer reference, we must also not lose our consulting team. While I agree with this completely, it isn't in the definition above for good reason. I'll never lose a good consultant over a customer, but not every consultant is a good consultant. This means the decision about retaining or losing a consultant requires far more analysis than just one project's objectives. It must be elevated to a company objective and as such removed from this.

The benefit of this measure is that it makes it very simple to calculate a meaningful rate of project success. While there is some wiggle room in how we might define a reference, or even the level of profitability we are aiming for, it is extremely measurable and meaningful.

So meaningful that it one of only five metrics required by our 8K Certification program. We firmly believe that a service provider not interested in measuring this kind of success probably isn't a service provider you should be working with.

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