published on 02/08/2016 by John Edmonds

The Hierarchy of Project Variables- Measuring project success using the five variables

John Edmonds
By John Edmonds Head of Training at pearcemayfield


Practitioners of PRINCE2, the well-known project management method, will be familiar with the six project management variables. The PRINCE2 manual calls these the “six aspects of project performance to be managed”, a good way of describing them.

I would like to consider five of these variables, and how they might constitute a hierarchy of factors that lead to the ultimate aim - project success.

[The variable that I am omitting is ‘Risk’. Not because I consider it unimportant, but because it does not lend itself to the hierarchical view that I am proposing. It is relevant to project success, just in a different way.]


First of all, here are the five variables, with brief explanations:


The financial budget for the project. By managing this the aim is to ensure we have an affordable project and to prevent, where possible, any overspend.


‘How long will it take?’ is a classic question asked of most projects. Together with ‘How much will it cost?’, this question helps us understand why there is so much emphasis placed on cost and time. After all, they are the easiest concepts to grasp, aren’t they?


Scope describes the boundary of what the project will deliver – what ‘things’ will be included within the project that will ultimately be delivered to the customer.


Related to some degree with ‘Scope’ is quality. Are the elements that make up the scope of the project fit for the purpose that they are designed?


Finally, looking more longer-term, will the outputs from the project, once delivered and put into use, satisfy the business requirements and deliver measurable improvements – benefits?

So, taking these project variables, let us consider them as a hierarchy, as in the diagram below.

Project Variables
the Hierarchy of Project Variables

The first thing to say about the diagram is that it does not just take the five variables and sequence them. There are two changes – cost and time have been bundled together (as they are commonly used to in this way), and level four introduces something different in terms of ‘organisational needs and outcomes’.

Let’s take a closer look at the levels:

Level 1 – delivering to time and cost used to be all that we thought was important about managing projects. These two variables made up two sides of the classic ‘golden triangle’ of project management and we still regularly hear the media talk about good projects equalling on-time and in-budget. They are important, but they are not the full story. The success characterised at level 1 is actually transient, and is soon forgotten. Let’s consider the more enduring factors of success.

Level 2 – are the things delivered by the project those anticipated by, and promised to the customer? Are the project deliverables the right ones, functioning in the correct way? Is the full extent of the promised scope delivered, and if not, were the changes explained and agreed? You could be living with this scope for many years – is it all that you wanted?

Level 3 – the scope that has been delivered needs to meet the customers' quality expectations. The products and services that make up the project deliverables should be fit for their purpose of meeting requirements and they should meet the quality criteria that was agreed at the start of the project.
the ‘golden triangle’

These first three levels can be summarised by the ‘golden triangle’ referred to above.

For many people, often on the ‘inside’ of a project, these are the aspects that we should be concerned with if we desire success for the project. They have a project, and their aim is to ‘do the project right’.

Efficiency in the way the project is delivered is uppermost in their thinking. As such, levels 1, 2, and 3 are their primary areas of concern.

Once again, there is nothing essentially wrong with this viewpoint, it is just that it does not capture the full extent of what we should consider to be ‘success’. To do that we need to move further up the hierarchy, and also move beyond the end of the traditional project lifecycle. That lifecycle can so often finish at the point at which all outputs are delivered and they are signed off as meeting the customers’ quality expectations. Levels 1, 2 and 3 have been met.

That, however, leads us to consider level 4 – the project has delivered a scope to a level of quality that meets organisational needs, and also that outcomes have been achieved. Whereas the first three levels have demonstrated that the project has been delivered correctly, now we are asking whether it was actually the correct project. The quality criteria were met, but were they the correct criteria in the first place? Have we met the needs of the organisation? If these are the right deliverables to meet those needs, then there is a likelihood that we will achieve real acceptance and organisational ‘take-up’. This will lead to real-world changes taking place – often referred to as ‘outcomes’. This is vital if we are to move to the final level.

Level 5 – the realisation of business benefits. We must never forget that this is the very purpose of starting any project – to deliver measurable improvements that our stakeholders consider positive ones.

These top two levels take us, of course, into the realm of change management, a vital ally to good project management. True project success needs us to have both disciplines working in harmony, and true project success would also require that all perspectives of the hierarchy are addressed so that efficiency leads to effectiveness, the right project is delivered in the right manner, and that good quality deliverables lead to good outcomes and realised business benefits.

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