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Project Management

Critical Success Factors are NOT your Project’s Objectives

The term “Critical Success Factor” is often trotted out by senior managers when talking about projects. I’ve heard it used in ways that simply confuse things and many people don’t seem to realise it means something different to a project’s objectives.

There are a couple of examples I usually give to explain the difference:

Flag on moonWhen President Kennedy spoke in 1961 about beating the Russians to the moon, he said; “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

OBJECTIVE: land a man on the moon before 31/12/69
CSF: return him safely to the earth

The objective describes the expected performance of the project (or programme) while the CSF shapes the way it needs to be run. Without that particular CSF it would have been possible to achieve the objective at much lower cost and much more quickly. There would have been no need for the progression from Mercury to Gemini and then Apollo. NASA could have designed a non-returnable system and left Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon.

In 1953, Hillary and Tenzing set out to be the first to reach the summit of Everest. That was their objective. Arguably, they also had a critical success factor to return safely to base camp. Another CSF was to be able to prove they were the first to the summit. That shaped their project plan: somebody had to remember to take a camera and a flag. It would have been very embarrassing to reach the top and to have this conversation: “Get the camera out Tenzing”; “Oh, I thought you were bringing it, Hillary”.

Interestingly, the PMI’s lexicon of project terms (version 3.1) doesn’t include “CSF”, nor does version 5 of the APM’s Book of Knowledge. However, I did find this definition via the APM website: Success factors are elements of the context or management process of a project, programme or portfolio that should be controlled or influenced, and will increase the likelihood of success. And: The presence of success factors does not guarantee the success of the initiative, but their absence may contribute to its failure.

In my opinion, it’s particularly helpful to think about CSFs on the really big and important projects. Often, they can be identified by considering the newspaper headlines that might be written if the project is seen as a failure.

Armstrong and Aldrin left to die on the moon“, or “Hillary can’t prove he got to the top of Everest“.

Critical success factors help focus project managers’ attention on important areas of the way a project is designed and run. You forget them at your peril.

In some projects, aspects of business continuity might be a CSF; i.e. the project mustn’t disrupt business as usual during implementation. For others, bringing it in before a particular date or within a particular budget might also be CSFs. You do have to be a bit careful, though; these latter two are, in most cases, exactly what the Project Manager is paid to do!

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