What Great Projects Have in Common

Research identifies seven common characteristics of highly successful projects.

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Image of the Sydney Opera House courtesy of Flickr user Linh_rOm.

From time to time we witness a project that stands out — surpassing expectations, creating exceptional value for the sponsoring company and for customers and eventually having an impact on its entire industry. We call such projects “great projects.” Consider the introduction of IBM’s AS/400 in the 1980s. In 1986, IBM’s market share in the growing, important mid-range computer business had shrunk to a single digit. However, 28 months later, a relatively small development lab in Rochester, Minnesota, was the talk of IBM. Engaging thousands of engineers around the world, the $1 billion Silverlake project created the AS/400 computer, which was launched in 27 languages and soon became one of IBM’s most successful products ever.

In retrospect, the AS/400 development effort could be considered a great project. It was a game changer in the computer industry and gave IBM a competitive edge. Apple Inc.’s success in creating the iPod portable media player and iTunes online store is another more recent example of a great project — one that changed the way people listen to and buy music. Why are such projects so rare — and why can’t more projects be like them?

As part of a decade of research, we collected quantitative and qualitative data on more than 400 projects that were undertaken in various industries since the late 1950s. We looked at projects in their wider sense, that is, as temporary organizational efforts to introduce change. In addition to new product development, the projects we studied included product and process improvement, construction, IT and other organizational infrastructure, organizational change, reengineering efforts and marketing campaigns. Data sources included interviews with major players along with project document archives and reports and other published material when available.

From this collection, we searched for projects that stood out, resulting in unusual success and long-term impact. We designated a project as “great” only if:

1. It was a major undertaking of strategic importance to the initiating organization.

2. Its outcome contributed substantially and for an extended period of time to the performance of its organization and the well-being of customers and users.

3. It was highly innovative from a scientific, technological, design or operational perspective.

4. The project’s outcome had a major impact on its industry and stimulated others to follow in its footsteps.




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Comments (4)
David Mullins
I fail to see how this paper and associated anecdotal and inferential "research" contributes to the body of knowledge regarding project implementation. It strikes me as a bland set of largely unsubstantiated cliches.
Nick Dorra – Blog | Why production people make kick-ass project managers
[…] MIT Sloan Management Review called ‘What Great Projects Have in Common’ (online version here). It struck me, that any decent film or TV show production has to tick all the seven boxes to […]
I have been going through MSP (Managing Successful Programmes) and the exams with this. It strikes me that it is designed for rolling out exactly these sorts of major projects and programmes. Yes, great projects have some inspiration and insight as to what they want to achieve, but an awful lot of the success is down to the tools used to implement this.
David Miller
The most important factors for a successful project are to identify a problem and objective, manage all stakeholders to agree, develop an action plan and then execute it until complete. Rarely do projects require someone to reinvent the wheel, but rather simply to use existing knowledge and innovatively apply it.