Project Success: once again, is the PMBOK® Guide creating more confusion?

Yes, once again the PMBOK® Guide creates confusion and this time is about project success.


  1. We did write in the past a few articles on the PMBOK Guide – what is good about it, what is missing, its inconsistencies, its gaps, and practitioners misunderstandings.
  2. We also wrote a series of four articles about project success and the dimensions of project success, which is also a chapter in an upcoming book for us. In those articles we gave examples and compared our position in relation to PMBOK Guide (4th edition).
  3. A few weeks ago, PMI officially released the fifth edition of the PMBOK Guide, and this version include a definition for project success in Chapter 2.
  4. Just a few days ago – there are at least two discussion topics on LinkedIn on this topic – the first specifically address the PMBOK guide but the other indirectly address the guide. Both of these threads included actively and passionate debate on the subject.

What Started It All

What started these debates is the new definition in the PMBOK on project success … please refer to the Guide page 35 (of the print version (p 61 on PDF format); section 2.2.3. The extended definition is four sentences.

Point 1: Confusion between project success and project management success

We quote the first sentence of the definition here: “Since projects are temporary in nature, the success of the project should be measured in terms of completing the project within the constraints of scope, time, cost, quality, resources, and risk as approved by the project managers and senior management.”

Let us reflect on the above before we include other parts.

Is this definition for one or two dimensions?

What we mean is, typically time, cost, resources are related to project management processes. On the other hand, the physical scope and quality can be related to the project management process only or both project management and product processes.The key distinction here – are we talking about scope management or delivering the scope – product?

If you consider all topics (scope, time, cost, quality) as part of project management than we have one dimension only – project management success. If we split them, the this one PMBOK sentence is covering two dimensions (consciously or subconsciously).

Another point, to be picky here, what does “temporary” has to do with the rest of the sentence?

The significance of the above distinction is to help us understand this sentence and whether it is OK or has gaps, or flawed.

So the first confusion: are we talking about 1 or 2 dimensions?

The way we understand it, is that this sentence is discussing measuring project management success;  only! If this is the case, is this enough to measure if a project is truly successful?

If the project is being developed by an organization to build a commercial facility; is success only about delivering the project on time, scope, cost? We do not want to repeat the four articles here that we already wrote on the subject or the discussions on LinkedIn so we advise the reader to refer to them.

Point 2: Is PMI changing the definition of project?

Please refer to the next article on this subject.

Point 3: Significant flaws in the “new definition”

Let us add more — assuming the PMBOK is now changing the definition this statement is flawed.


PMBOK is supposed to be for most projects most of the time. In all capital investment projects, power, petrochemical, refineries, utilities, hospitals, schools, etc. the project team is not and SHOULD not be responsible for operations whether initial, temporary, or permanent. Operations skills and expertise are totally different from project design and construction skills. Did those writing this sentence recognize this? Or where they writing from a narrow perspective and did not understand how the projects by these industries where projects are typically in the millions and billions of US dollars?

Point 4: More flaws in the “new definition”

The project success definitionTo ensure realization of benefits for undertaken the project, a test period …” How long of a period is acceptable, days, weeks, months, years? So PMI is advocating keeping the project open for an undefined period of time … do people realize how dangerous this is? This is an invitation to keep the “books” open indefinitely. Let us say we are over-reacting and one can define this period … how long is enough to determine “realization of benefits”? In a software projects maybe weeks are enough to determine if a new application is truly more efficient. But again for capital investment projects are weeks enough to determine if the new hospital, manufacturing plant, or refinery is giving the organization (the project owner) the benefits expected when they launched this project?

Point 5: Last Baselines

The third sentence in the definition: “Project success should be referred to the last baselines approved by the authorized stakeholders“. In abstract this is OK. However, let us ponder for a minute. Is it possible that from the idea, feasibility, charter, project management plan, someone or the team could have made a mistake in the developing the project in line with the project business case and expected benefits?

So we do not allow potential gaps – is one of the reasons there are four dimensions in the Customizable and Adaptable Methodology for Managing Projects. Each of this dimensions address a different control reference points along the project life span. Please refer to our past articles (mentioned earlier) and other references, listed at the end of this article.

Point 6: Project Manager Role

The last sentence in the definition is “The project manager is responsible and accountable for setting realistic and achievable boundaries for the project and to accomplish the project within the approved baselines.”

Outside the context of project success there is nothing wrong with this statement.

However, since it is the definition of project success – the context change and creates more confusion.

  • If we limit the definition to project management success – then in our humble opinion the statement is still mostly acceptable. Except – we are giving the project manager too much power in an industry where we keep saying Matrix is the most common form where the PM does not have enough authority.
  • Let us say the PM is empowered … as an organization are we going to allow the does of a task, project, etc. set their own success measures? Where is the oversight and governance to ensure that the success criteria is from the eyes of the organization and not an individual?
  • The other issue with the above: PMBOK keep insisting that the PM is not involved pre project (pre charter) even though the PM is helping write the charter.
  • Pre project is the period where the feasibility studies are done … if the PM is not involved here then how could he/she be able to set the proper criteria — and then be accountable to it. I am all for the PM to be involved and again this is what we advocate in our methodology but this is not what the PMBOK advocates.
  • Assuming we are wrong on the above points – where is the role of the sponsor and the organization management?


Unless we really totally misunderstand this new definition, there are major issues in every sentence – and there are only four sentences.

The root cause in our professional opinion is that there are too many stakeholders perspectives and view points conflicting here and PMI continue to play as a bystander without hiring experts to review these standards for consistencies. With all respect to the volunteers – there are too many of them and each team is working on a chapter or section – what is lacking is consistency check across the board.

PMI also need to make up its mind – what does the PMBOK covers, Project Manager Perspective? Project Owner (organization) Perspective, Service Provider Perspective, Project Sponsor Perspective, Project Life Span Perspective?  Or, what we prefer, a strategic perspective from the project owner viewpoints.

Another issue PMI need to decide – is the PM a technical clerk, a Manager for the life span, or the project manager from idea to closure? Does the PM has limited authority or significant power?

The last point: should PMI continues to get away without proper reviews of the PMBOK by paid experts, from different domains, for consistency checks?

What are your views on this article and the points we make here? We want to hear from you especially if you have counter points.

SUKAD and Author Views on Measuring Project Success

  1. Click here for a presentation on the Four Dimensions of Project Success
  2. Click here for a draft of the chapter on measuring project success from an upcoming book
  3. Click here for a workshop on Managing for Project Success
  4. The following figure is from our methodology showing the four dimensions

The SUKAD Way™ | CAM2P™ Model | The Four Dimensions of Project Success

SUKAD offers courses on the PMBOK, CAM2P Model, PRINCE2, Capital Projects, PMO, Case Studies, Risk Management, Project Success. We offer our programs for the public in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Lebanon or for private clients wherever they are.