What Is a Critical Success Factor? A Quick Guide

Updated Aug 3, 2022.

Critical Success Factors (CSF) are vital to the success of your project or business. You need to identify key success factors right from the project planning phase to remain competitive in a specific industry.

Without determining these key success factors in broad terms, you will struggle to know when you achieve your project goals and differentiate wins from losses.

This article will teach you everything you need to know about critical success factors, including why they matter for your business and how to determine them.

What is a Critical Success Factor (CSF)?

CSFs are the various requirements or actions a business or project team takes that are essential to its success. The successful execution of CSFs adds meaningful value and leads to a positive outcome.

A critical success factor consists of environmental factors, industry-related, peer-related, management-position, and temporal factors.

With the help of critical success factors, an organization can focus better on a few key areas that guarantee a strategic goal.

Chief executives define the critical success factors for the organization. However, they must define it not as a success determinant tool but as a system that better positions the organization for success.

Source: ResearchGate

Project deliverables or strategic goals each have different critical success factors (CSFs), which guarantee either the eventual success or failure of a project.

Many confuse a critical success factor with a key performance indicator (KPI). There is a clear difference between CSFs and KPIs.

Critical Sucess Factors refer to actions taken to achieve the business goals or the causes of success. On the other hand, KPIs are key metrics that measure and monitor the progress of a project or business.

CSFs include quality service, improved marketing strategies, and increased customer satisfaction, while KPIs include project management metrics such as project ROI and employee satisfaction score.

Why Do Critical Success Factors Matter?

By defining and effectively monitoring critical success factors, key project stakeholders can maintain a close watch on key elements that guarantees a successful execution.

Without a concrete project plan and structure on the path to take in delivering strategic goals and objectives, the project is susceptible to a wide array of risk factors.

By utilizing critical success factors, your project’s deliverables cease to be mere hypotheses but rather undergo the needed transformation to ensure it achieves success.

Key metrics such as agile metrics are entirely different from critical success factors. Unlike critical success factors, key metrics exist as key performance indicators, while critical success factors better position the company to achieve success.

Ensure key elements of your strategic factors correlate with the company-wide strategic plan, its long-term business plan, and its strategy.

Doing this ensures you achieve the project's success criteria and helps highlight areas that need improvement for the organization’s benefit.

When Should You Define Key Success Factors?

Defining your critical success factors should take center stage. You can define it with the project’s deliverables in the planning phase.

The idea behind simultaneously defining your project’s strategic goals and critical success factors is to provide a clear and vivid image of the steps required to determine a successful project execution.

Selecting a maximum of five critical success factors per expected deliverables is advisable. However, it all depends on the project scope and size in question.

Overloading your organization with a long list of critical success factors defeats its initial purpose. The more the success factors, the more difficult it becomes to track their progress.

How to Determine Critical Success Factors?

Determining critical success factors requires strategic planning in delivering the needed success factor.

1. Designate and Assign a Team to Track Critical Success Factors

The first step in determining critical success factors you intend to implement is providing the necessary structures for it to thrive. You can create and assign a special team to manage the company’s critical success factors.

Everyone occupying a management position in the company should be actively involved in this process. Doing this helps ensure successful competitive performance.

2. Have Company Employees Submit their Ideas and Suggestions

Employee feedback is a pivotal instrument that can significantly improve an organization's business processes. It should be a part of the initial launch communications. Creating room for employee feedback makes them feel more involved in the project.

Determining high-level critical success factors is a major step. Consider all inputs from all quarters and sectors of the organization. After you identify CSFs, share them with your team.

Besides providing mechanisms for ongoing communications among company stakeholders, the chief executive can define his own data needs and assign a small team tasked with sourcing ideas and information from various company sectors.

You can automate the collection of employee feedback with team communication tools like Monday.com, ClickUp, and Wrike.

3. Use Multiple Frameworks to Determine Key Elements of Long-Term Organizational Plans and Goals

Several frameworks give room for a more detailed understanding of the key elements that constitute the organization's strategic goals and objectives. They assist in defining and determining important business critical success factors.

One of these frameworks is the Objective, Advantage, Scope (OAS) statement which helps detail your business strategy and methods of executing these strategies in achieving strategic business goals.

Another is the SWOT analysis which helps optimize business performance with the minimum risk factor. Including a change agenda and strategic plan are key frameworks that better define your organization’s plans.

SWOT questions
Source: Helpful Professor

4. Determine Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to Achieve Long-Term Organizational Plan

Before implementing said frameworks and structure, you need a prior, and proper understanding of key factors and their roles in ensuring the company achieves its long-term.

Elements from the OAS statement, SWOT analysis, strategic plan, and change agenda determine the top and most important critical success factors.

Finance, customer, business process, and people are the four key aspects that directly affect the strategy of a business. They work together to balance the critical success factors and the company’s project.

5. Implement Company-Wide Strategic Plan

Keep in mind the idea of critical success factors when implementing the company’s business strategic plan. You can do this by using a Balanced Scorecard (BSC).

A balanced scorecard is a strategic project management framework that ensures you achieve the business’ critical success factors.

In this framework, you measure your critical success factors to determine its progress as regards implementation. You also delegate tasks to assist the project team in taking the right actions in completing set initiatives.

Critical Success Factor Examples

Deliverables are distinct and unique and vary across various companies, cutting across specific departments, project management teams, and relevant people.

The process of determining critical success factors is different depending on the deliverables set. So, your critical success factors are key elements that your deliverables require to track the progress of tasks in a specific project.

Examples of critical success factors required by select project deliverables:

  • Improve customer relationships
  • Increase in new customers
  • Increase sales revenue
  • Improve rates of social media engagement
  • Faster content assets creation time
  • Increase in market share
  • Improve employee engagement

Irrespective of the deliverables you want to achieve, the critical success factors remain solely determined to achieve the strategic goals and objectives of the organization.

You can effectively apply critical success factors such as improved employee feedback mechanisms and new operations methods with your list of deliverables.

According to Harvard Business Review (HBR), there are nine critical success factors for innovation.

  • A compelling case for innovation
  • An inspiring and shared vision of the future
  • Fully aligned strategic innovation agenda
  • Visible senior management involvement
  • Decision-making model that fosters teamwork in support of passionate champions
  • A creatively resourced, multi-functional dedicated team
  • Open-minded exploration of the marketplace drivers of innovation
  • Willingness to take risks and see value in absurdity
  • The well-defined yet flexible execution process

Tracking Your Critical Success Factors: What You Need To Know

In keeping tabs on your critical success factors, you must stay ahead via strategic planning of certain other factors.

1. Keep Track of Your Critical Success Factors

Critical success factors are directly linked to specific projects, and a large extent, their performances determine if the organization will meet the strategic goals and objectives.

How regularly you track the progress of your critical success factors depends on the organization's choice of strategy and the specificity of goals and objectives.

By employing the right strategies to track the progress of your critical success factors, you are indirectly tracking the company's business processes. Use project tracking software to track critical success factors for your project.

2. Assign a Specific Person Direct Control Over Each Critical Success Factor

Assigning leadership control over each critical success factor to a specific person is effective. Thoroughly brief the assigned individuals about their duty to facilitate the success and progress of the company’s strategic objectives and goals.

Task them with creating a strategic plan for the ongoing communications of the progress of the critical success factor assigned.

Critical Success Factor: Key Terms

There are several key elements and terms associated with critical success factors. These terms in themselves have a direct impact on the system the critical success factor builds.

1. Critical Success Criteria (CSC)

Critical success criteria validate the project deliverable as a success by linking the deliverable to the exact critical success factor it needs.

2. Key Success Area (KSA)

The key success area is similar to the critical success factor. Many people use it as a direct replacement for the critical success factor.

3. Key Result Area (KRA)

The key result area is specific to either employees or organizations' departments. It refers to the results required for each role assigned.

The top management position and key stakeholders must thoroughly understand their roles and responsibilities to accurately align each assigned task to key result areas.

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Martin Luenendonk

Editor at FounderJar

Martin loves entrepreneurship and has helped dozens of entrepreneurs by validating the business idea, finding scalable customer acquisition channels, and building a data-driven organization. During his time working in investment banking, tech startups, and industry-leading companies he gained extensive knowledge in using different software tools to optimize business processes.

This insights and his love for researching SaaS products enables him to provide in-depth, fact-based software reviews to enable software buyers make better decisions.