Project Success, Failure: Customers Not Getting What They Want

ProjectSuccessPMIn addition to making sure that a project is delivered within the triple constraints, one must also ensure alignment between project outcomes and customer’s expectation to truly deliver on the project goals.

During the lifecycle of a project, what a customer wants and what is finally delivered often becomes misaligned. This article suggests a framework to identify and manage the gaps where these misalignments often occur.

Defining project and product failure

A project is defined by PMI as a ‚Äòtemporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result’. To put it another way, a project’s main aim is to deliver a product or service which has certain features so that it may deliver specific benefits for the customer, Table 1.

Table 1 Project deliver benefits

Project ‚Üí ‚Üí Features ‚Üí Benefit

A project failure is a failure to deliver a product or service within agreed time, cost and performance criteria, while a product failure is a failure to design and produce a product that can deliver the benefits as expected by the customer.

Managing gaps to ensure alignment of project outcomes

Consider the five levels of project performance gap identified by Deane et al1, Table 2. Each gap has the potential of resulting in an ‚Äòineffective project result’ i.e. customers not getting what they want. Closing these gaps can help ensure a more relevant project outcome.

Table 2 Performance gaps1

Actual project outcome needed by the customer
Gap1 Desired project outcome as described by the customer
Gap2 Desired project outcome as perceived by the project team
Gap3 Specific project plan developed by the project team
Gap4 Actual project outcome delivered to the customer
Gap5 Project outcome as perceived by the customer

In Table 3, we present a framework, based on these performance gaps to manage these gaps. To take it a step further, we have added an additional 6th gap: ‚ÄòWhat the customer needed vs. what the customer think is needed’ to cater for the disparity between what the customer wants and what the customer really needs to realise their desired benefits. Here we identify the gaps, the prominent role that can manage that gap, suggestions on how the gap may be managed and the type of failure that may result in not closing the gap.

Table 3 Managing performance gaps framework

Gaps Main Role Managing the Gaps Type of Failure
Gap 0
What the customer needed
What the customer think is needed
  • Customer
  1. Customer must really understand the benefits they want to be delivered
  2. Consult with experts. Customer understands that the product that they initially had in mind may not be the best way of delivering the benefits that they require
Customer fails to discover what is really needed
Gap 1
What the
customer though she needed
What was communicated
  • Customer
  • Owner
  1. Customer needs to clearly communicate benefits that is required
  2. Customer should ensure that the project owner understands
Customer fails to communicate what they want
Gap 2
What was communicated
What was perceived
  • Customer
  • Owner
  1. owner understands the benefits that the user requires
  2. owner understands and evaluates the product and features suggested by the customer
  3. Customer and product owner agree on a product that that will deliver the benefits that the customer desires
owner fails to understand what the customer wants
Gap 3
What was perceived
What is planned/designed
  • Customer
  • Owner
  • Project Team
  1. owner and project team needs to come up with a plan to deliver the product as envisioned by customer and product owner
  2. the design with the project owner and the customer
Project Failure
Failure of the project team to interpret what the project owner wants into a design
Gap 4
What was planned/designed
What was delivered
  • Customer
  • Project Team
  1. Project team checks whether what has been deliver is as per design
Project Failure
Project team fails to deliver as per design
Gap 5
What was delivered
Customer’s reception
  • Customer
  • Owner
  1. Ensures that the customer is involved during the project initiation, planning and execution
  2. As more information becomes available ad things become clearer, adjustment should be made to close the gaps
  3. owner checks that what was delivered is what the customer wanted
  4. Evaluates whether the product delivers the benefits that the customer was expecting
Failed to close one or more of the following gaps: Gap 0, Gap 1, Gap 2

Table 4 Aligning Customer Expectation and Project Outcome

Customer ‚Üí Owner ‚Üí Design ‚Üí Project Planning ‚Üí Project Execution ‚Üí Delivery

Using this framework, we are able to address the gaps as we progress through the project life cycle. Table 4 is a quick look at the kind of alignment that is should be aiming for.

Gap 0 – The customer is clear and communicates to the product owner what is needed

The customer, who is the person expected to consume the product or service, although not always clear on the form the product or service will eventually take, should be sure on the benefits they expect.

Gap 1 & Gap 2 – The product owner works with the customer to come up with a product or service that will deliver the benefits that the customer wants

The role of product owner is essential but need not be a dedicated one. The role is sometimes assumed by the sponsor or even the project manager. Where the customer’s role is to champion the benefits, the product owner provides the vision and will have the final say on the product itself.

The product owner should be clear on the benefits the customer expects from the end product and work with the customer to determine the product or service that will deliver the benefits the customer requires.

Gap 3 – The product owner and project team designs the product

Based on feedback provided by the product owner, the project team begins designing the end product. Each feature of the end product, must map to a benefit that the customer and project owner has agreed upon. The team and product owner reviews the design with the customer to ensure that the product will deliver the desired benefits.

Gap 4 & Gap 5 – Planning, execution, monitoring and Project Closure

Armed with the product design, the project team begins planning the project itself and come up with a project plan. Once the project plan is created, the team can begin executing the project.

During the execution of the project, as more information becomes available, changes to the project plan (time and resources) and the product design (scope) is inevitable. When planning, the team are forced to make estimates, assumptions and evaluated risk to manage the uncertainty. As the project progresses and events unfold, it is wise to make adjustment to the plan when necessary as long as the gaps are managed and expectations are aligned with the project outcome.

If all the gaps are closed, and the team is careful that the expected benefits and project outcome are always aligned, the project should deliver a project that the customer approves of.

Terminating a project

As the project progresses, it may become evident that the project may no longer be feasible or relevant. Here are a few reasons to consider terminating a project:

  • Project plan is overly aggressive. The project team discovers that they are way in over their heads and in their planning have misjudged their ability and what it takes to deliver the project
  • is likely to fail. It is becoming clear that the product to be delivered will not deliver the benefits that are desired.
  • is no longer relevant. Due to some reason (e.g. changing technology landscape, lack of interest) the customer is no longer interested in the benefits.


A project should only be interested in delivering what the customer wants. Managing the gaps that might occur and monitoring them during the lifetime of a project will help ensure a project delivers an outcome that is relevant to the customer there by ensuring project success.


  1. Deane, Richard H., Thomas B. Clark, and A. P. Young. “Creating a learning project environment: aligning project outcomes with customer needs.” Information systems management 14.3 (1997): 54-60.

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