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20 Fundamental Truths of Successful Projects

I have been around a long time in the project management profession—longer than most.

(Read: Old guy.) I have had some failures and a lot of successes. Listed below are 20 fundamental truths that stand out from my experiences. Although the focus is on the project manager, you will see that many of the lessons also apply to the business analyst and her or his team. Ignore this foundational guidance at your own risk.


  1. The project’s outcome—whether hugely successful or a dismal failure—is mostly a reflection of the effectiveness of the project manager.
  2. Project managers must have the autonomy they need to succeed; but they must take it, not wait for it to be given. If you need to assume authority yet doubt that it is yours to claim, ask the project sponsor or your boss for guidance; however, better to err on the side of assuming too much authority rather than too little.
  3. Clients should get what they need, then as time and budget allow, consideration should be given to satisfying their wants.
  4. Create the best reasonable schedule, regardless of the original schedule set by senior management; then be prepared to defend that schedule.
  5. A good plan allows the project manager to establish control of the project; monitoring the plan allows the project manager to stay in control.
  6. Trying to force the proverbial ten pounds into a five-pound sack will make things far worse than first expected.
  7. Do not continue to commit to a broken Project Management Plan that is unachievable.
  8. Identify poor performers as early as possible and ensure they are receiving appropriate coaching and mentoring. Remove hard core underperformers from the project.
  9. The notion that anyone can learn anything in a short amount of time if it is important enough to the business and the individual is not true.
  10. If the client and users are not involved throughout the development of the product, you risk building the wrong product.
  11. Periodically solicit client feedback related to how satisfied they are with how the project is being managed. The most basic way to learn the expectations of clients is to ask them.
  12. Scope changes should be expected throughout most of the project life cycle. This ongoing fine-tuning is essential for the success of most projects.
  13.  Deliver bad news timely and accurately to project stakeholders; do not hold back or sugar-coat bad news.
  14. The discipline exhibited by the project manager and project members in the project tracking or stand-up meeting is directly related to the discipline that can be expected from them throughout the project.
  15. Don’t expect that a team behind schedule will catch up later.
  16. Don’t assume that a task reported by a team member as 90% done really is 90% done—the last 10% can take as long as the first 90%.
  17. The most effective project managers spend a significant amount of their time out and about—even if virtually—communicating with project stakeholders and inspecting what they expect from others. Most problems are not found hunkered down in an office.
  18. Projects typically don’t go from “everything’s good” to “failure” overnight. You make scores of decisions every week about your project. It is the sum of these decisions that will define the success or failure of the project.
  19. Listen to your instincts. They are a remarkable asset.
  20. Do not beat yourself up when you make a mistake. We all make mistakes. But do learn from each mistake and avoid making it twice.