To Boost Project Success Rate, Start at the Beginning

Government projects of all types are often abandoned or need to be restarted—and in this respect, government agencies are no different from other organizations.

In fact, across all industry sectors, only 69 percent of the projects completed in the past 12 months successfully met their original intent, and barely half—52 percent—finished on time, according to the Project Management Institute’s 2018 “Pulse of the Profession” survey. Meanwhile, 15 percent of projects that were finished in the last year were considered failures.

There are many possible reasons for these disappointments. For instance, changes in organizational priorities or objectives—the top two causes of failure as identified by project managers—can quickly derail projects. But after these two causes, the next five most commonly cited reasons for failure can all be traced back to the project’s outset: requirements were not accurately assessed, goals were not clearly outlined, communication was poor, opportunities and risks were not well defined, and/or cost estimates were off.

In other words, the projects were not initiated with a proper intake process—and so they were ultimately doomed to fail. If organizations can improve their intake process, they will be well on their way to better project management.

Why is the intake process so critical? Government agencies, like other organizations, typically have more proposed work than they can deliver, owing to limited time and resources. As a result, they have to carefully prioritize how they will spend their money and labor.

The intake process is where project proposals are reviewed to determine how important they are—and whether they should get the green light to proceed, be tabled for a later date, or be rejected outright.

Project intake ensures that only those projects that add enough value to the organization are approved, while effective governance ensures that value continues to exist while the project is underway.

All projects are an investment of an organization’s resources, and there are circumstances under which a given project no longer provides enough value back to the agency. In other words, the return on investment (ROI) becomes too low to sustain. If that threshold is reached or crossed, the project might be put on hold until circumstances improve—or even stopped altogether.

Effective project intake requires a clear set of criteria for evaluating proposals, a process for doing so, and tools that can help measure value. Here’s a closer look at each of these three key elements.


When determining whether to move forward with a project, here are four key aspects to consider:

  • How critical is the need? In other words, what is the impact to the organization if the project isn’t done? Are there current workarounds in place to address the need until the project is completed? How would those affected by the project rate its urgency: high, medium, or low?
  • How much value will it bring to the organization? What are the goals and expected benefits of completing the project, both tangible and intangible? What are the missed opportunities if the project isn’t done?
  • How complex is the project? Are the project’s requirements well understood? Will it involve a substantial amount of change or disruption to the organization? Who will be affected, and how?
  • Do we have the resources to complete it successfully? How much will the project cost? How much time will it take? Do we have the institutional knowledge in place to complete it? How many other projects are we trying to accomplish at the same time?

The more accurately these questions can be answered, the more effective the intake process will be—and ultimately, the project itself.

A process

When setting up an intake process, consider who will be responsible for evaluating project proposals, how proposals will be submitted, and how they will be reviewed. Do you have a formal project management office, or will managers be responsible for reviewing and signing off on project requests in their departments?

For large projects, agencies should require those requesting a project to fill out some kind of form to answer the questions above. And make sure you have a governance process in place to review projects periodically once they have begun to ensure they are still a good use of time and resources; otherwise, it might make sense to pull the plug and reinvest those resources in areas that are more productive for the organization.


Aside from creating forms to request information, having a project portfolio management (PPM) system in place can help organizations improve their intake and governance processes. A PPM system gives leaders insights into all of the projects in an organization and how they fit together with the agency’s vision, as well as how much time and money projects are consuming.

In short, a PPM system can help leaders ensure that the most important, highest-impact projects are prioritized—and less important and more risky projects are deferred.

Project intake is how organizations make sure they’re only taking on projects that are worth completing and are likely to succeed. By approving the right projects from the beginning, delaying projects that are not as important, and rejecting projects that are likely to fail outright, government agencies can dramatically improve their rate of success.


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