Sun. Jan 22nd, 2023

Defining Success Criteria

You will never be able to determine whether a project has been a success or not, unless you have criteria against which to judge the outcome.

Let’s imagine we’re planting out a patch of woodland.

How will we know that we have been successful?

Please note: the provided targets are purposefully dreadful, and the corrections have not been shown, as the exercise that follows this page will be asking you to do that task!


There will be trees planted.

Analysis of criterion

Without looking beyond the immediate statement, “there will be trees planted”, is this a good success criterion?

Hopefully, you agree that it isn’t. Just some of the problems with its content include:

  • In what way should they be planted? Do they need to be dug into the ground, or will just putting pots down be ok?
  • Should they have all been planted in a single long line, or should they have been planted within a rectangular area?
  • Should they all be the same variety, or should they be a mixture?

As you can see, we could probably continue for some time. The problem with the criterion is that it is not SPECIFIC. It is so vague, that there are a multitude of ways in which to gauge compliance with it. This would cause many problems:

  • Developers not knowing exactly what is being asked of them
  • Client not receiving the system that they expected


There will be trees planted.

Analysis of criterion

Our poor criterion just can’t catch a break. Not only were we concerned about its specificity, there are other problems with it too.

Consider this scenario:

  • I have planted two trees. Two is plural – therefore “trees have been planted”.

Again, we would probably argue that the target hasn’t been met. Two trees do not a forest make. The problem is, that as written, the criterion is not MEASURABLE. There is nothing quantitative about the way it is written.

For clarification, had the project been completely different – maybe, you are tasked with writing a sorting routine – you might face a target like this: “The sort routine should work” – but this is just as vague. Should it work in less than two seconds? Or a minute? Or is leaving it overnight ok? Again, it lacks anything quantitative, and measurable.


A forest of trees will be planted.

Analysis of criterion

We already know that there are at least two problems with that target – it is neither SPECIFIC not is it MEASURABLE. But things are about to get a whole lot worse for it.

Putting those issues aside for a moment, picture in your mind what a forest looks like. Maybe Thetford Forest:

That’s looking a bit ambitious. How about a local forest?

Have we just identified another problem? Giving someone a target to plant out Thetford Forest is giving them a target that is not ACHIEVABLE. There is no way a single person could ever manage that. A smaller forest might well be within their abilities though.

However, the question of whether it is ACHIEVABLE is not the same as whether it is REALISTIC. How? Let’s suppose that a single person can indeed plant out an entire forest. But this might take 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Is this a realistic expectation to make of someone’s life? Probably not.

The questions of ACHIEVABLE and REALISTIC are very similar. Achievable relates to whether or not it is possible, and realistic, assuming it is possible, relates to whether you could expect it to be done, allowing for other commitments (such as a life, eating, sleeping etc).


A forest of trees will be planted.

Analysis of criterion

OK, we know just how terrible this target is, and why. But… let’s imagine it’s ok. We get a beautiful new forest, and against all odds, it looks exactly as the client hoped for. It’s perfect.

It’s just… they wanted the forest ready for an outdoor event celebrating nature, and the event was six months ago. So, although the forest is great, it wasn’t ready in time, and couldn’t be used for the intended purpose. The target was not TIME BOUND – that is, there was no deadline, and as such, no-one knew when it needed to be completed.

Setting success criteria correctly

From this rather laboured exercise, it should be clear that targets for the sake of targets are not useful to anybody.

In order for a target to be useful, it must lay out a set of criteria which can unequivocally be assessed. In order to do this, each criterion should be encapsulated into a SMART target; that is, it should be:

  • SPECIFIC – exactly what is being asked
  • MEASURABLE – how will you know it has been achieved
  • ACHIEVABLE – is it something that could actually be managed
  • REALISTIC – given the demands of other areas of the work, is it realistic that it will be achieved?
  • TIME BOUND – by when does it need to be completed