Critical Success Factors are prerequisites to the success of the project, not the most important measures of success.

Critical Success Factors

John Rockart defined “critical success factors” in his HBR article of 1979 as "the factors that need to be measured and managed as pre-requisites to success."

However the project fraternity has redefined this phrase to mean, “the most important success measures.”

Two things worry me:

  1. If we adopt the project fraternity's definition, what do we call Rockart’s pre-requisite 'critical success factors' as the name has already been used?
  2. The underlying thinking of this redefinition assumes that there are important and unimportant success measures and that, if push comes to shove, you can pick and choose which success measures you’ll deliver.

Optional success?

This new ‘critical success measures’ definition is a symptom of a process that identifies a set of success measures as if they were separate from the project. “We run the project to try to attain the success measures and if necessary cut back to just the critical success factors.”

This is alien thinking to us at TOP.

Full delivery = success

When we define a project, indeed before we define “the project”, we define the desired business outcomes, their benefits and value. Delivery of these clear, specific, measurable desired business outcomes and their benefits and their value in full is success.

Then, through our optimization process at the business case stage, but before approval, we eliminate any high cost/low value outcomes or benefits that are not worthwhile pursuing. As a result we go forward with an optimized project that has a clear set of measurable business outcomes, benefits and value to be fully delivered.

But we also organize these business outcomes into an outcomes dependency roadmap. This roadmap illustrates that you can’t get, say, outcome C until you have delivered outcomes A and B; and you can’t get outcome E until you have delivered outcome C. And so on.

The up and downstream dependencies of each outcome are clear. Any change to the scope can be assessed in terms of its impact on the specific outcome, its benefits and value – and on the downstream outcomes.

In Conclusion

If cuts to the scope are necessary, then the last-to-be-delivered outcomes are the ones that should be targeted as to change any earlier outcomes will also impact their downstream dependent outcomes, benefits and value.

But importantly, there is no hierarchy of success measures, just a sequence of dependency and delivery with each outcome’s net value known and managed.

Therefore we can restore 'critical success factors' to mean the prerequisites for success and manage them at the governance team level to ensure the right factors exist or happen to ensure the total success of our projects.


Topics: Project Success, Risk Management, Project Controls

Further Reading



[1] ...

Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Apr 2014) as "What Are "Critical Success Factors"?"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections