Defining Success for Your Information Technology Project


So you’ve just spent half a million dollars on an IT project. It came in on time and under budget, without too much disruption, and everything is working fine. You should feel pretty good about the project’s success, right? Well, of course, I wouldn’t be asking the question if I didn’t want you to think twice about the answer.

Taking time at the end of a project to measure its success is too rarely done, yet so important for many reasons. It helps justify the expense and effort. It reinforces the role of IT as a business enabler, not just a cost center. It provides a basis for correcting small problems before they become big ones. But how do you define success?

Defining success for an IT project begins in the project planning stages. Why are you doing this project? What is the driving force? Typical answers might be “replacing end–of-life equipment,” “our old equipment is coming off lease,” “we need to upgrade the links so need 10G interfaces,” “we’re virtualizing our applications so need beefier servers,” or “we’re five revs behind on our software.”

These are all drivers of change, but I challenge you to think beyond these superficial reasons. New equipment, new software, and updated designs should bring capabilities or features that help the business do its work better.

For instance, suppose you are replacing end-of-life network equipment. Ask your network staff to investigate what the new equipment can do differently than the old. Many switches have power-saving modes, powering down ports at off hours when they aren’t in use and thus saving you money. Wireless LAN controller functionality built into an access switch could improve traffic flow within your network, making it more efficient. Technologies such as Netflow give increased visibility into traffic on your network, allowing you to proactively spot developing problems. Embedded management tools provide automated ways to control the equipment. These all provide business benefits if you take advantage of them.

Different capabilities change the definition of project success. Success is no longer making sure the new, shiny equipment works as well as the old, dusty equipment did. It involves looking at the expected and actual effect on the business, such as figuring out how much you expect to save in power bills. Or how much increased network performance and uptime you’ll get due to more efficient traffic flow and better management, leading to more productive employees.

It can take some effort to put metrics around these, but otherwise how will you show that your project was a net gain for the company? Additionally, measurements can help point out problems or needed changes before they become large issues. For instance, one company was not seeing the performance improvements it expected, and discovered two problems. One was excessive Torrent activity by an employee, and another was a misconfigured core switch. These were corrected before users noticed much of an impact on the network.

Not all measurements or solutions are technical. One company introduced VPN and virtual desktop technologies to encourage increased teleworking. It expected teleworking to increase by a certain percentage, an increase in employee satisfaction since they could choose where to work, and a savings in facilities costs.

But when they measured, they didn’t see the expected benefits. After investigation, it turned out the issue was cultural, not technical. Employees were afraid their managers would think they weren’t working as hard unless they were physically in the office. Since this company was tracking project success, executives were able to step in quickly, deal with the misperception, and then see the results they were expecting.

Unfortunately a blog doesn’t provide enough space to go into detail about defining and measuring IT project success. But I urge you, as you plan your projects, to consider the following questions:

  • What do you hope to accomplish?
  • How will the project help the business do its work better?
  • How will you measure that?

At NetCraftsmen we have consistently seen the benefits of creating good measurements, and then following through to track project success; hopefully you will, too. Feel free to contact us to set up a deeper conversation about how to measure the success of your projects.

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