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The project manager’s guide to succeeding without winning

Adeline Teoh ed.
December 4, 2012

A National Geographic video is currently doing the rounds and I want to share it with you because it’s so beautiful. Each segment focuses on a cheetah running, captured in slow motion. Cheetahs are the world’s fastest animals on land, reaching 100kph in about three seconds. The problem is, going at this speed is physically unsustainable, which is why they can only do it for a minute or so. After a minute, they need to have caught their prey or else they give up.

Thinking about cheetahs running recalled a story told to me when I visited Kings Creek, a camel station in the Northern Territory, earlier this year. Apparently in ye olden days, there was a wager placed on the fastest animal over 100 miles: horse or camel. The horse won by a fair bit, the story goes, but then died overnight; the camel loped another 100 miles back to the starting point the next day, seemingly unaffected by the weather, the terrain or the distance. It may be apocryphal, but the result of the race says a lot about winning versus success.

This tale brought home a few home truths about the idea of winning versus succeeding. Most of the time, these two words are interchangeable: after all, the projects you see attracting awards are successful ones. However, sometimes the concept of what makes a successful project differs from ‘winning’ as per the so-called iron triangle of meeting time, cost and quality objectives. Award submissions will always state that the project met these objectives (or if they did not, why not) as a necessary—but not sufficient—condition of contention before launching into other aspects of the project.

But the winning project is rarely the one that merely met the strictures of the iron triangle. It is not enough to have completed your project quicker, cheaper or at a better standard than stipulated at the beginning: there must be an outstanding difference in how the project was delivered above and beyond expectations.

Success is not only defined by the project’s stakeholders, it is also contextualised in the challenges it faced and overcame. Just as importantly, as the project manager you need to ask: knowing what I know now about how things panned out, would I do this project? Would my team come along for the ride? Would my sponsor green light this project again? A ‘yes’ to all three questions would indicate a successful project.

But if everyone breaks on the way to fitting the project to a triangle, then can you really call that success? Are you racing a horse or a camel?

Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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