Tests for Success

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How do you identify the bull’s-eye among your stakeholders?  Nothing’s worse than finishing a project and missing the mark you didn’t know was there. At patterns & practices, one of our most effective project practices is to use “tests for success” to help avoid this scenario.   You can use “tests for success” whether it’s a project or even just a personal task.  It’s simply about defining what good looks like.  Think of it as knowing when you’re done, and knowing what good looks like.

What are Tests for Success
Tests for success” are the prioritized success criteria that the stakeholder’s agree to.  It’s basically a set of test cases, that if the project passes, the project is perceived as a success.  They help clarify outcomes and priorities.

Example Tests for Success
One of my projects was about creating and organizing a catalog of our prescriptive guidance for our customers.  Here’s an example of the “tests for success” :

  • Single multi-dimensional information model?
  • Single unified perspective of the product model?
  • Single unified perspective of the content model?
  • Backlog is mapped to the information model?
  • Capability to do comparative analysis and produce “Consumer reports” view of the catalog and the proposed work? (e.g. What’s our customer demand? … What’s our coverage?)

Stakeholders for the project created and prioritized this list, with prompts from the project team.  This exercise helped clarify a lot of ambiguity as well as do a level set for the team.

How Can You Use This
Whether it’s a personal project or a project at work, you can create your own tests for success.   I think a small list of the vital few works better than a laundry list.  Phrasing the tests as one-liner questions makes them easy to create and use.  Here’s some prompts to trigger your own tests for success:

  • When are you done?
  • What does good look like?
  • How will the world be a different place when the project is done?
  • What are the most valuable outcomes?
  • In order for the project to be successful, we need to …. ?

When you’re in the thick of things, you’ll appreciate having a small set of criteria to go back to and help keep you and everyone involved on track.

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  1. It’s an If you don’t know where you’re going how will you know when you there type of thing? It’s good to have pre-set goals for a project I think, or it sometimes can take on a life of it’s own without it.

  2. Hi J.D.

    You are one of the few people who can write something that is so left brain in a way that a right brain person will still be interested in reading it. 🙂
    Thank you for this, I really like the idea of testing for success.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  3. Good stuff – like you say, cutting questions, eh? 😉
    When testing for project success here is the list I use. So far it’s been very precise at predicting the “situations”:

    * Doesn’t meet expectations.
    * Lacks change management processes.
    * Lacks project sponsorship.
    * Insufficient resources or budget are available.
    * Team doesn’t report or escalate critical problems quickly.
    * No risk planning.
    * Schedule delays and missed commitments are rampant.
    * Project is over-budget with no end in sight.
    * Low morale is a problem.
    * Uncontrolled scope creep abounds.
    * Project direction and end-game aren’t clear.
    * Showstoppers haven’t been identified.

    I adopted it from article on ZDNET

  4. I agree 100%. Agreeing on success measures and success criteria is such an important element of project management.

  5. Hi JD,

    I like your question “What does good look like?” Too often we assume that good to us will mean good to other people, yet good is a concept and each person or groups of people may have a different specific definition of what good is. You give great advice here.

  6. If we don’t keep track of what we want out of a project we won’t see success. I like these guidelines as well as Alik’s. We all work from different set points. When we understand our talents and what are reasonable expectations then we can enjoy the process as well.

  7. @ Louisa

    You said it. I’ve seen projects where the team wanted one thing but the stakeholders wanted another and yet the customers wanted something entirely different. It’s way better to test this up front and create a shared map and vision. Criteria helps.

    @ Giovanna

    Thank you – that is a great compliment. I’m a fan of holistic learning and I think life’s better when we get the best of the left paired up with the best of the right.

    @ Alik

    I like it! It’s a nice set of cutting tests that get to the core.

    @ Stacey

    True that. Success means different things to different people so it’s all about the shared map.

    @ Daphne

    That was my biggest lesson. I found it’s not just figuring out what good looks like for you, but remembering that value is in the eye of the beholder. A shared set of tests is one of the best ways to tease that out.

    @ Karl

    Too true. Life’s an obstacle course and when we get lost it’s great to know how to get back on track.

    @ Positively Present

    Thank you. It’s a practice that has served me well.

  8. That sounds like a great approach especially before entering into a larger, important project. Give a test run of sorts to iron things out.

  9. Hi JD

    Your third question really inspires me. That could even make one reassess whether the task is actually worth undertaking in the first place.


  10. @ Gennaro

    Testing your results is the way to go. Really, it’s about reducing ambiguity a step at a time. It’s hard to predict what you really want, but the more you test drive, the more you get a better picture of what works and what doesn’t.

    @ Juliet

    It’s definitely helped me prioritize one path over another multiple times. There’s lots of things I can do, but the trick is to figure out where I get the best leverage and make the most impact.

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