Project Success is NOT Stakeholder Satisfaction

A number of people, including some at the Project Management Institute, think that project success is defined as the achievement of stakeholder satisfaction.

Are they right?

Last week on a seminar (the Projectmanagent Parade 2008) I heard an interesting argument against this view. Michiel van der Molen, an advisor for project managers, told his listeners that project managers can not be held responsible for the success of a project, if project success is defined as "successful in the eyes of the stakeholders". His argument was as follows:

Can you (as a project manager) be made responsible for someone to stop smoking? No you can't, because you cannot be made responsible for changing someone's behavior. People have to change themselves.

Likewise, as a project manager, you cannot be made responsible for stakeholders being satisfied. It's certainly good and preferably when they are. But some stakeholders will never be happy, whatever you do to try and please them. When people don't want to change, it's their problem, not yours.

I was considering this when I was in a meeting today discussing some complaints we received from one of our customer's stakeholders. It was a clear case of someone who's never going to be happy, whatever we do. I was beyond caring. As long as the customer happily keeps paying the bills, this particular stakeholder can stuff his complaints in some not-to-be-named dark, warm and moist orifice, of his own choosing.

Fortunately, the idea of the "stakeholders' viewpoint" is not as widespread as I thought. After googling around a bit, I found some other definitions, most of them mentioning business value delivered and value for money.

Increased stakeholder satisfaction is often named as one of the drivers behind agile software development. And that's good. But please, don't let your definition of project success depend on it. Some of the stakeholders will never be happy, whatever you do. You can stand on your head, or dance the Macarena. But it won't help. In the end, satisfaction of the customer (that's the one who pays the bills) is the only thing that counts.

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