Category Archives: Value

Defining Project Success using Project Success Criteria

Everyone likes a successful project but the big question is what makes a project successful??  A good example is the Sydney Opera House; was the Sydney Opera House successful or not?

Was the Sydney Opera House a success or not?

The project ran significantly over budget finished very late and was technically less than perfect; $millions are currently being spent rectifying many of the technical deficiencies in the building. But can anyone say Sydney Opera House is not one of the most recognised and therefore successful buildings in the world?[1]

Success is an ephemeral concept! Different people will have different perspectives and judge the success or failure project differently. Neither a project nor a program manager can control many of the factors that have made the Sydney Opera House worldwide icon but they can address the concept of success with their stakeholders and then work to deliver a successful outcome based on these discussions.

So what is success? There are probably three key elements, but these frequently create a paradox that requires a balanced approach to success. The three fundamental elements are:

  • The Iron Triangle (Scope + Cost + Time)
  • Benefits realised (or maximised)
  • Satisfied stakeholders (but, when??)

One of the key paradox is a myopic focus on the Iron Triangle particularly time and cost can frequently destroy benefits and leave the stakeholders unhappy, but focusing on keeping stakeholders happy can frequently have detrimental effects on the Iron Triangle. There are no easy solutions to this problem[2].

In my view, the successful delivery of a project or program requires:

  • Achieving the overall goal for the project;
  • Delivering its objectives; and
  • Meeting its success criteria.

But, to achieve success you need to define and agree the project goal, the project objectives, and the project success criteria with your key stakeholders with a view to achieving a combination of stakeholder satisfaction and value created. The goal and objectives frame the project’s work and direction. The success criteria frame how the objectives are achieved.


The Project Goal

Goals are high-level statements that provide the overall context defining what the project is trying to achieve. One project should have one goal (if there are multiple goals you are most likely looking at a program of work[3])!  For example:  Within 180 days, reduce the pollution in the rainwater runoff from a council tip by 98%.

The goal is a key statement in the Project Charter[4] and if the project is to be successful, all key stakeholders need to agree the goal.  The goal needs to be specific and should define the project in a way that focuses attention on the key outcomes required for overall success from a technical and strategic business perspective[5].


Project Objectives

The objectives are lower level statements that describe the specific, tangible products and deliverables that the project will create; each objective (and the overall goal) should be SMART[6]. For the runoff project the objectives may include:

  • Develop wetlands to trap 99.8% of sediment
  • Install channels to collect and direct the runoff
  • Install screens remove floating debris
  • Etc….. There will be a number of objectives……

Each objective requires defining and specifying with clear performance criteria so you know when it has been achieved. This may be done by the client or by the project team during the scope definition process. The performance criteria may be defined by a set of precise specifications that are specific and measurable or may be defined as a performance requirement with either:

  • The external contractor to provide the specific details of how the objective will be achieved, or
  • The internal project team to develop the details in consultation with the client

The defined objectives are the building blocks that facilitate the achievement of the goal and the creation of the benefits the organisation is expecting from the project[7]. The benefits need to be realised to create value.


Success criteria

Success criteria are different they measure what’s important to your stakeholders. Consequently, they are the standards by which the project will be judged at the end to decide whether or not it has been successful in the eyes of its stakeholders. As far as possible the stakeholders need to be satisfied; this includes having their expectations fulfilled and in general terms being pleased with both the journey and the outcome (in this respect scope, cost and/or time may be important).

Success criteria can be expressed in many different ways some examples include:

  • Zero accidents / no environmental issues;
  • No ‘bad press’ / good publicity received;
  • Finalist in the project achievement awards;
  • Plus the goal and all of the objectives achieved (yes – you still need to do the work).

For any project, the success criteria should be split between project management success criteria which of related to the professional aspects of running the project; plus project deliverable success criteria which are related to the performance and function of the deliverable.

Documenting the success criteria is important, it means you can get project stakeholders to sign up to them, and having them clearly recorded removes ambiguity about what you are setting out to do. The four basic steps to create useful success criteria are

  1. Document and agree the criteria; each criteria should include:
    1. The name of success criteria,
    2. How it is going to be measured,
    3. How often it is going to be measured, and
    4. Who is responsible for the measurement.
  2. Use continuous measurements where possible. For example, rather than ‘finish the project on time’ measure progress continually ‘no activity completes more than 5 days after its late finish date’.
  3. Baseline today’s performance.
  4. Track and report on your progress.

As with any performance indicators, the art is to select a few key measures that represent the wider picture if there are too many success criteria defined the impact will be severely reduced. For example, the effectiveness of meetings, communication and stakeholder attitude could be measured scientifically using the ‘Index Value’ in the Stakeholder Circle[8] or pragmatically by measuring the number of open issues against a target (eg, no more than 5 high priority open issues).



Goals and objectives are the building blocks required to allow the realisation value from the project’s outputs; they are essential ingredients in a successful project but are insufficient on their own.  The role of success criteria is to direct the way work at the project is accomplished so as to meet stakeholder expectations, and to craft a perception of success in the stakeholder’s minds.

Project success is an amalgam of value created for the organisation and your stakeholders being satisfied with the journey and the outcome.  This concept of success may seem subjective, but it does not have to be. Successful organisations work to take the guesswork out of this process by defining what success looks like and agreeing these definitions with the key stakeholders, so they all know when the project has achieved it.

This means the key to stakeholders perceiving your project as successful lays in understanding the criteria they will measure success by, incorporating those measures into your project success criteria, and then working to achieve the criteria. But even this is not enough, to engage your stakeholders you need to communicate the criteria, communicate your progress and communicate your success at the end. For more on effective communication see:



[1] For more on the success or failure of the Sydney Opera House see Avoiding the Successful Failure!:

[2] For more on paradox see:

[3] For more on differentiating projects and programs see:

[4] For more on the project charter see:

[5] For more on project success see:

[6] SMART = Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-framed.

[7] For more on linking objectives and benefits see:

[8] The Stakeholder Circle® index value see:

What price should you pay for perfection?

What price should you pay for perfection or alternatively how do you mange genius?

3D Scan of the building by the Scottish Ten Project

3D Scan of the building by the Scottish Ten Project

The Sydney Opera House is now over 40 years old, is the youngest cultural site to ever have been included in the World Heritage List, is the busiest performing arts centre in the world, supports more then 12,000 jobs and contributes more then $1 billion to the Australian economy each year. The fact is cost nearly 15 times the original under estimate with a final bill of $102 million pales into significance compared to the benefits it generates.

Over the years, we have written about the project and its value on numerous occasions some of the key discussions are:

What I want to focus attention on this time is the genius of Jørn Utzon and the inability of the NSW Government bureaucrats and politicians of the time to understand and appreciate the value of the work he did 50 years ago.

Utzon focused on developing partnerships with ‘best of kind’ manufacturers to prototype and test components then incorporating the best possible design into the fabric of the building. The process appeared relatively expensive in the short term (especially to bureaucrats used to contracting work to the lowest cost tenderer), but 50 years later the value of careful design and high quality craftsmanship is becoming more and more apparent.

Much of the structure was carefully designed precast concrete units, they were used extensively in the shell roofs, podium walls, sunhoods and external board walks. 50 years later the near perfect condition of the concrete despite its continuous exposure to a very hostile saline environment shows the genius of a person focused on creating a lasting landmark rather than seeking the cheapest short-term solution.

Similar longevity can be seen in the tiles that clad the shell roof, the glazed walls and most of the other work designed by Utzon (for more on this see the recently rediscovered, iconic 1968 film Autopsy On a Dream).

Contrast this clarity of vision leading to a high quality, long lasting, low overall cost outcome to the high costs of maintaining and/or replacing the elements of the building designed and installed by others after Utzon was forced to resign. The internal concert and opera halls are planned to be rebuilt at a mooted cost of between $700 million and $1 billion; and changes to Utzon’s design for the precast ‘skirts’ around the podium have resulted in $ millions more in repair costs.

The Sydney Opera House and the National Broadband Network have a lot in common. Both were inspirational schemes intended to cause a major change in culture and move society forward. Both were the subject of opportunistic political attack. Neither was well marketed to the wider stakeholder community at the time, very few understood the potential of what was being created (particularly the conservative opposition), and after a change of government both had the fundamental vision compromised to ‘save costs’ and as a result the Opera House lost much of its integrity as a performance venue with poor acoustics and an ineffective use of space.

Hopefully over the next 10 years $1 billion may solve most of the problems caused by the short sighted ‘cost savings’ in the finishing of the Opera House so it can at last achieve its full potential. The tragedy is repairing the damage done by the short term cost savings and compromises in design to appease vested interests are likely to cost 30 to 40 times the amount saved.

I’m wondering how much future telecommunication users will have to pay to drag the sub-standard NBN (National Broadband Network) we are now getting back to the levels intended in the original concept. The cost savings are focused on doing just enough to meet the needs of the 20th century such as telephony and quick movie downloads – simple things that politicians can understand. Unfortunately the damage this backward looking simplistic view will do to the opportunities to develop totally new businesses and ways of working that could have been facilitated by the original NBN concept of universal fibre to the premises will not be able to be measured for 20 to 30 years. Envisioning what might be requires a different mind set and a spark of genius.

In both the situations discussed in the blog, and when looking at the next bold concept proposed by a different ‘visionary’ the challenge will still be answering the opening question. How can businesses, bureaucracies and politicians learn to manage genius and properly assess a visionary multi-generational project to achieve the best overall outcome? There’s no easy answer to this question.

Who Manages Benefits?

I attended the Benefits Realisation Summit in Sydney earlier this week which was focused on two significant ‘launches’ – the Australian launch of Managing Benefits, the official reference guide for the APMG qualification of the same name and the launch of the Maximiser benefits management software:
– See more on Managing Benefits
– See more on Maximiser

Managing Benefits will require a couple of posts over the next couple of months to cover the depth of information available to organisations to achieve the best return on their investments in projects and programs, and my contribution to the Benefits Realisation Summit was focused on understanding the links between stakeholders, the overall value chain, and the organisation’s project delivery capability (download the presentation).

The area of discussion I found most interesting at the summit was around the roles and responsibilities of the different managers involved in realising benefits and creating value. As a starting point there was a very good definition of the stages involved in creating value, based on the concept of developing a new retail shop:

  • The output from the project to build the shop is a fitted out facility.
  • The outcome from the staffing and stocking of the shop is a shop selling goods to customers.
  • The benefit realised from the shop is the monthly profits from sales.
  • The value created by the new business is its potential ‘sale price’ which is usually calculated as a multiple of the annual earnings (typically somewhere between 5 and 12 times the annual profit).

The realisation of the value outlined above requires a ‘chain’ of decisions and management actions:

  • The chain starts with decisions around the type of shop, its location, size, etc. The overall value chain is discussed in The failure of strategic planning and the front end processes in Linking Innovation to Value.
  • Once the optimum project has been selected, the organisation then needs to be capable of efficiently delivering the project and creating the required output. Project Delivery Capability (PDC) is discussed in White Paper WP1079.
  • Once the project’s outputs are created, the requirement to make efficient use of them within the organisation requires effective organisational change management; this facet of the value chain is discussed in WP1078.
  • Then, assuming the original concepts used in the business case were accurate, the intended benefits are realised and value is created.

Within all of these stages, the key to creating the intended value is effective benefits management; this is the focus of the Managing Benefits book and the objective of the Benefits Realisation Summit.

Maximising the benefits realised from a project or program is not a solo effort, it requires the effective cooperation of a number of managers with defined roles and responsibilities operating effectively as a team:

Each of the managers above has a distinct role to play:

  • The Senior Management Grouphave ultimate responsibility for generating value from the organisation’s investment in a project:
    • The role of senior management and portfolio management in the pre-project phase is ensuring the right projects are selected for the right strategic reasons
    • Once the project has transitioned its output into operations, the senior management group responsible for the operation of the organisation’s business-as-usual processes need to make effective use of the deliverable to realise benefits and as a consequence, generate the intended value.
  • The Sponsor is the senior manager responsible for taking ownership of the business case, approving the Project Charter once the organisation has agreed to fund and resource the project and ensuring the project’s outputs are effectively transitioned into operations and used effectively. The role of the sponsor is discussed in WP1031. From a benefits realisation perspective, the Sponsor (or Senior Responsible Owner – SRO) is the manager with primary responsibility for ensuring the intended benefits are realised. The sponsor may fulfil the role of benefits owner personally, or liaise with the designated benefits owners to ensure the benefits are realised (the benefits owner is the person responsible for the realisation of a specific benefit).
  • The Sponsor is supported by two specialist managers:
    • The Project Manager responsible for the efficient delivery of the project and
    • The Change Manager responsible for managing the organisational change needed to make use of the new product, process or service.
  • The role of the Benefits Manager is partially advisory, and partly an assurance role. The Benefits Manager should be responsible for developing an effective set of metrics supported by a system for identifying and measuring benefits (planned and realised) and should also be responsible for validating the realised benefits (see more below).

The relationship between the project and change managers
Change management and project management are different skills requiring different training and different personality types. Both roles are critical and should support the sponsor in achieving the best possible transition of the project’s outputs into operations.

During the life of the project the project manager is assisted by the change manger to ensure the project delivers the most useful output, the change manger also works on preparing the organisation for the change. The focus is creating the ‘right’ outputs as efficiently as possible and this is primarily a project management function.

During the critical transition phase the focus changes, the project manager’s role should shift to focus on helping the change manger to ensure the projects deliverables ‘work’ in the organisational setting. The project manager will also be working on project closure during this period but this should be secondary to ensuring the planned benefits are capable of being realised.

Throughout the whole process, the change manger is primarily responsible for facilitating the organisational change aspects of the initiative including of all of the processes involved in embedding the new product, process or service within the organisation and supporting its adoption through to the point where it is functioning as a normal part of the organisation’s ‘business-as-usual’ capabilities. This may require some level of support for two or three years after the project has finished.

The effect of programs and program management
Programs are created to manage the work of several projects in a coordinated way, may include some operational work for a period and many are set up specifically created as organisational change agents. The different types of program are outlined in WP1022.

If a project is a component of a program, the program manager is responsible for creating the project and is usually acts as the project’s sponsor. The program is responsible for the change management processes as part of its core integration and coordination functions and the program sponsor has overall responsibility for the return on investment in the program.

The roles and responsibilities of the Benefits Manager
The concept of a Benefits Manager is relatively new. The Benefits Manager provides a benefits realisation support service to sponsors, program managers, change managers and benefits owners. Some of the functions include:

  • Develop, maintain and progressively enhance the benefits measurement system used by the organisation.
  • Provide scrutiny of each business case to assure the organisation the benefits claimed are realistic and achievable within the proposed timeframes.
  • Lead the benefits identification and mapping processes for project and programs.
  • Assisting with the development of the benefits realisation strategy and plans for projects and programs.
  • Help with the identification and optimisation of additional benefits, dis-benefits and assess the impact of changes from the benefits realisation perspective.
  • Tracking and reporting on the actual realisation of benefits by the organisation.

This is an important role both from the facilitation perspective and the assurance perspective. People with a vested interest in the value of benefits proposed or realised should not be the people measuring their value; this is an untenable conflict of interest. The Benefits Manager provides independent assurance that the benefits proposed in the benefits realisation plan have been achieved to the extent defined in the plan, at the time defined in the plan and any variances are identified and explained or understood. For more on assurance see WP1080.

Benefits cannot be managed directly; they are a consequence of other management actions and decisions. An organisation will maximise the benefits actually realised by maintaining a focus on benefits from the early stages of project initiation right through to the point where they are fully realised by the operations of the changed organisation.

Linking Innovation to Value

In a recent post looking at the The failure of strategic planning  and the overall value delivery chain centred on projects and programs, the link between innovation and the strategic plan was raised briefly. The purpose of this post it to take a closer look at this critical ‘front end’ of the value chain because it does not matter how well you do the wrong projects! The ability to generate sustainable value for an organisation’s stakeholders requires the right projects to be done for the right reasons; and yes, they also need to be done right!

The section of the ‘value chain’ leading into a portfolio management decision to select a project or program as a viable investment is far more complex than the section after. Once a project or program has been selected, it needs to be accomplished efficiently, the outputs transferred to the organisation and the organisation adapt to make efficient use of the ‘deliverables’ to realise the intended benefits and generate value. This flow of work is primarily the responsibility of the project/program sponsor initially supported by project and program management, and then by organisational ‘line management’ until the final transition to ‘business as usual’ operations.

Developing a business case to the point where it can be accepted for investment is more complex, involves a wide spectrum of managers and potentially involves a number loops.

The three elements in this section of the overall ‘value chain’ are a viable strategic plan, a realistic business case that supports an element of the strategy and an effective portfolio management system to optimise the overall portfolio of projects and programs the organisation is capable of investing in.

The key is an effective and viable strategic planning process that is capable of developing a realistic strategy that encompasses both support and enhancements for business as usual, and innovation. Strategic planning is a complex and skilled process outside of the scope of this post – for now we will assume the organisation is capable of effective strategic planning.

The sign of an ineffective, unresponsive strategic planning process is seeing business cases fired off by business units without any reference to the strategic plan or worse projects being started without strategic alignment. The option to bypass the strategic planning may be valid in an emergency but not as a routine option. In a well disciplined value creation process, the portfolio management team simply reject business cases that cannot demonstrate alignment with the organisations strategic intentions. The red arrow in the diagram above simply should not be allowed to occur in anything other then an emergency situation.

The Portfolio/Strategic link (blue arrow)
There is a close link between the portfolio management processes  and strategic planning – what’s actually happening in the organisation’s existing projects and programs is one of the baselines needed to maintain an effective strategic plan (others include the current operational baseline and changes in the external environment). In the other direction, the current/updated strategy informs the portfolio decision making processes. The strategic plan is the embodiment of the organisation’s intentions for the future and the role of portfolio management is to achieve the most valuable return against this plan within the organisation’s capacity and capability constraints.

Routine inputs to the Strategic Plan (light green arrows)
The routine inputs to the strategic planning process come from the ‘organisation’ and include requirements, opportunities, enhancements and process innovations (eg, new software releases). These basic inputs are the core information required for strategic planning and form the majority of the new information in each update of the strategy.

The Innovation / Strategic Plan loop (light blue arrows)
This is the first of the more complex spaces – innovative ideas can come from anywhere in the business and are actively encouraged by leading organisations such as Google and 3M. Conversely, an organisational objective may require innovation to allow it to come to fruition. One of the most challenging objectives in recent times was Kennedy’s commitment to “before this decade is out, [land] a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.” The amount of scientific innovation required to achieve this objective was incredible.

The organisation’s governance processes and strategic development processes need to both encourage innovation whilst recognising that not every innovative idea will be appropriate for the overall development of the organisation. This requires the implementation of systems to encourage innovation, collect and sort innovative ideas and move the ‘right’ ideas into the strategic plan, where necessary revising and changing the plan to grab the innovative advantage.

The Feasibility loop (orange and yellow arrows)
Having innovative ideas and creative business cases is one thing, validating the feasibility of an idea is altogether different! The ability to test, validate and work-up innovative ideas into practical project specifications is a critical organisational capability. On mega projects the pre-feasibility and feasibility studies may in fact be significant projects in their own right involving considerable expenditure, feeding back to a gateway or portfolio management process to allow the next stage of the project to commence.

Several of the ‘gateways’ defined in most standard ‘gateway processes’ precede the commissioning of the main project and the organisation needs the capability to make informed decisions based on good quality information. This aspect of the value creation chain is industry specific and may be a central function or distributed across different business centres. What matters is the capability exists with the necessary skills to validate ideas and design projects ready for the more traditional project management processes to take over once the project is formally authorised.

The long term viability of any organisation depends on its ability to innovate. Traditional project and program management focus on doing the selected projects/programs ‘right’. But it is the ‘front end’ processes discussed in this post leading up to the investment decision that determine if the ‘right’ project is being selected for the ‘right’ reasons!

The effective governance of an organisation should require its management to invest sufficient skills and resources in these ‘front end’ processes to ensure a steady flow of innovative ideas, feeding into an effective and flexible strategic planning system, linked to a disciplined portfolio management process; to ensure the optimum mix of ‘right’ projects and programs are commissioned and supported.

Advising Upwards for Effect

The only purpose of undertaking a project or program is to have the deliverables it creates used by the organisation (or customer) to create value! Certainly value can be measured in many different ways, improved quality or safety, reduced effort or errors, increased profits or achieving regulatory compliance; the measure is not important, what matters is the work of the project is intended to create value. But this value will only be realised if the new process or artefact ‘delivered’ by the project is actually used by the organisation to achieve the intended improvements.

The organisation’s executive has a central role in this process. There is a direct link between the organisation’s decision to make an investment in a selected project and the need for the organisation to change so it can make effective use of the deliverables to generate the intended benefits and create a valuable return on its investment. The work of the project is a key link in the middle of this value creation chain, but the strength of the whole chain is measured by its weakest link – a failure at any stage will result in lost value.

In a perfect world, the degree of understanding, knowledge and commitment to the change would increase the higher up the organisational ladder you go. In reality, much of the in-depth knowledge and commitment is embedded in the project team; and the challenge is moving this knowledge out into the other areas of the business so that the whole ‘value chain’ can work effectively (see more on linking innovation to value).

To achieve this, the project team need to be able to effectively ‘advise upwards’ so their executive managers understand the potential value that can be generated from the initiative and work to ensure the organisation makes effective use of the project’s deliverables. The art of advising upwards effectively is the focus of my book ‘Advising Upwards’.

An effective Sponsor is a major asset in achieving these objectives, providing a direct link between the executive and the project or program. Working from the top down, an effective sponsor can ensure the project team fully understand the business objectives their project has been created to help achieve and will work with the team to ensure the project fulfils its Charter to maximise the opportunity for the organisation to create value.

Working from the bottom up, new insights, learning and experience from the ‘coal face’ need to be communicated back to the executive so that the overall organisational objectives can be managed based on the actual situation encountered within the work of the project.

The critical importance of the role of the sponsor has been reinforced by numerous studies, including the PMI 2012 Pulse of the Profession report. According to this report, 75% of high performance organizations have active sponsors on 80% of more of their projects (for more on the value of sponsorship see: Project Sponsorship).

If you project has an effective sponsor, make full use of the support. The challenge facing the rest of us is persuading less effective sponsors to improve their level of support; you cannot fire your manager! The solution is to work with other project managers and teams within your organisation to create a conversation about value. This is a very different proposition to being simply ‘on-time, on-scope and on-budget’; it’s about the ultimate value to the organisation created by using the outputs from its projects and programs. The key phrase is “How we can help make our organisation better!”

To influence executives within this conversation, the right sort of evidence is important; benchmarking your organisation against its competitors is a good start, as is understanding what ‘high performance’ organisations do. PMI’s Pulse of the Profession is freely available and a great start as an authoritative reference.

The other key aspect of advising upwards is linking the information you bring into the conversation with the needs of the organisation and showing your organisation’s executive how this can provide direct benefits to them as well as the organisation.

In this respect the current tight economic conditions in most of the world are an advantage, organisations need to do more with less to stay competitive (or effective in the public service). Developing the skills of project sponsors so that they actively assist their projects to be more successful is one proven way to achieve a significant improvement with minimal cost – in fact, if projects are supported more effectively there may well be cost savings and increased value at the same time! And what’s in it for us as project managers? The answer is we have a much improved working environment – everyone wins!!

Averaging the Power of Portfolios

The interaction between dependent or connected risk and independent risk is interesting and will significantly change the overall probability of success or failure of an endeavour or organisation.

As discussed in my last post on ‘The Flaw of Averages’  using a single average value for an uncertainty is a recipe for disaster. But there is a difference between averaging, connecting and combining uncertainties (or risk).

Adding risk

Where risk events are connected, the ability to model and appreciate the effect of the risk events interacting with each other is difficult. In ‘The Flaw of Averages’ Sam Shaw uses the simile of wobbling a step ladder to determine the uncertainty of how safe the ladder is to climb. You can test the stability of one ladder by giving it a good ‘wobble’. However, if you are trying to determine the stability of a plank between two stepladders doubling the information from wobbling just one is not a lot of help. Far more sophisticated modelling is needed and even then you cannot be certain the full set of potential interactions is correctly combined in the model. The more complex the interactions between uncertainties, the less accurate the predictive model.

However, when the risks or uncertainties are independent, combining the risks through the creation of a portfolio of uncertainties reduces the overall uncertainty quite dramatically.

The effect of portfolios

Consider a totally unbiased dice, any one throw can end up anywhere and every value between 1 & 6 has an equal probability of being achieved. The more throws, the more even the results for each possibility and consequently there is no possibility of determining the outcome!

The distribution after 10, 100 and 1000 throws.

As the number of throws increase, the early distortions apparent after 10 throws smooth out and after 1000 throws the probabilities are almost equal.

However, combine two dice and total the score results in a very different outcome. Whilst it is possible to throw any value between 2 & 12, the probability of achieving a number nearer the middle of the range is much higher than the probability of achieving a 2 or a 12. The potential range of outcomes starts to approximate a ‘normal distribution curve’ (or a bell curve). The reason for this is there is only one combination of numbers that will produce a 2 or a 12; there are significantly more combinations that can make 7.

The more dice you add to the ‘throw’, the closer the curve becomes to a ‘normal distribution’ (or bell curve), which is normally what you expect/get, which is the origin of the name!

The consequence of this phenomenon is to demonstrate that the creation of a portfolio of projects will have the effect of generating a normal distribution curve for the outcome of the overall portfolio, which makes the process of portfolio management a more certain undertaking than the management of the individual projects within the portfolio. The overall uncertainty is less than the individual uncertainties……

Each project carries its level of uncertainty and has a probability of succeeding off-set by a probability of failing (see Stakeholder Risk Tolerance) but as more projects are added the probability of the overall portfolio performing more or less as expected increases, provided each of the uncertainties are independent! This effect is known as the Central Limit Theorem.

One important effect of the Central Limit Theorem is the size if the contingency needed to achieve a desired level of safety for a portfolio of projects is much smaller than the sum of the contingencies needed to achieve the same level of ‘safety’ in each of the individual projects. Risk management is a project centric process; contingency management is better managed at the portfolio level. Not only is the overall uncertainty reduced, but the portfolio manager can offset losses in one project against gains in another.

Whist this theorem is statistically valuable, the nature of most organisations constrains the potential benefit. From a statistical perspective diversity is the key; this is why most conservative investment portfolios are diversified. However, project portfolios tend to be concentrated in the area of expertise of the organisation which removes some of the randomness needed for the Central Limit Theorem to have its full effect.

It is also important to remember that whilst creating a portfolio will reduce uncertainty, no portfolio can remove all uncertainty.

In addition to the residual risk of failure inherent in every project, there is always the possibility of a ‘black swan’ lurking in the future. Originally conceptualized by philosopher Karl Popper and refined by N. N. Taleb, a ‘black swan’ is a risk event that has never occurred before, if it did occur would have and extreme impact and is easy to explain after the event, but is culturally impossible to predict in advance (ie, the event could be foreseen if someone is asked to think about it but it is nearly impossible to think the thought for a compelling reason). For more on black swans see our blog post  and White Paper.

The Law of Averages

The Central Limit Theorem is closely aligned to The Law of Averages. The Law of Averages states that if you repeatedly take the average of the same type of uncertain number the average of the samples will converge to a single result, the true average of the uncertain number. However, as the ‘flaw of averages’ has demonstrated, this does not mean you can replace every uncertainty with an average value and some uncertain numbers never converge.


Both the Law of Averages and Central Limit Theorem are useful concepts; they are the statistical equivalent of the adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. When you create a portfolio of projects, the average probability of any one project succeeding or failing remains the same as if the project was excluded from the portfolio, but the risk of portfolio suffering an overall failure becomes less as the number of projects included in the portfolio increases.

However, unlike physical laws such as gravity, these laws are not immutable – drop an apple within the earths gravitational pull and it will fall; create a portfolio and there is always a low probability that the results will not conform to normal expectations!

Certainly the probability of a portfolio of projects ‘failing’ is lower then the average probability of each project failing but a reduced level of risk still leaves a residual level of risk.

The Capital Crime

A recently published, free e-book, ‘The Capital Crime’ focuses on the massive loss and waste of capital being perpetrated on an ongoing basis in most organizations across the world, through their executive management, failing to effectively ‘manage the management’ of projects and programs.

Cobb described his Paradox more than 15 years ago , but organisations still deliberately set up projects so they are almost guaranteed to fail and waste vast amounts of capital as a result. However, fixing Cobb’s Paradox and doing projects ‘right’ is only part of the answer, a wider capability is needed focused on using capital effectively in support the organisations strategy to generate real value for the organisation’s stakeholders!

We refer to this as ‘Project Delivery Capability’ or PDC; the e-book’s authors use a wider definition, ‘Value Delivery Capability’. Regardless of the name, we agree with Jed Simms, the only piece of the value delivery chain that is understood is the piece in the middle called ‘project management’. The surrounding envelope of organisational abilities to only start the ‘right projects’, set the selected projects up for success and then make effective use of the project deliverables to create value is poorly understood – the strength of a chain is defined by its weakest link, not its strongest!

The consequence of this lack of understanding of the ‘value chain’, at the very top of the organisation, is organisations setting their project up to fail, failing to support projects during their execution, and failing to make use of the project deliverables to generate value. The failure of any of these ‘weak links’ reduces the organisations ability to achieve its strategy and a return on investment. The associated waste of capital caused by sub-optimal project outcomes is the core of the ‘capital crime’ discussed in an easy to read ‘story’ format in the free e-book, ‘The Capital Crime’.

You are invited to download your copy of ‘The Capital Crime’ from: