Success is unique to each project.

But no matter your indicator of success — be it reaching a financial target or receiving a certain amount of attention — there’s always a way to define it. And that definition outlines your critical success factors (CSFs).

What are critical success factors?

CSFs are high-level, strategic actions a team must take — or rules they must follow — for a project to be successful. Project managers often define these first, working from there to determine the tasks, methods, and resources necessary to achieve them.

While similar to key performance indicators (KPIs), which define success metrics within a project, CSFs are actions. Say your team is optimizing a website to increase traffic. A KPI might be hitting 50% more traffic within six months, and a CSF might be lowering overhead costs while maintaining quality, along with a guide for doing so. The KPI marks success, while the CSF promotes it.

The importance of setting critical success factors

CSFs are the things project deliverables demand, offering your team the clarity they need to do efficient and effective work. You might complete project goals, like building a website and conducting back-end optimization, but if you neglected to meet a CSF stating the budget you must stay within, your team wasn’t successful. Understanding these nonnegotiable factors ensures your team contributes meaningful work that checks all the boxes.

Common types of critical success factors

CSFs can be anything you must achieve for project success. That said, here are a few key success factor types project managers typically use:

  • Environmental factors: You might need to meet certain environmental factors, like industry regulations or updated company guidelines. Proactively identify and monitor environmental factors to avoid risks and potential issues.
  • Peer-related factors: These CSFs compare your business moves and motives to competitors. When creating this type, try to envision how your project can position you higher in the marketplace.
  • Industry-related factors: Industry-related factors are similar to peer-related ones in that you address them to remain competitive. The difference is that you base these CSFs on broader industry best practices and technologies to ensure your team produces something that meets your industry’s end-user expectations.
  • Temporary factors: Sometimes, a situation may impact you and your team for only a short duration, such as requiring an influx of hiring due to a large one-off project. Here, you'll mandate a temporary CSF until the situation resolves.
  • Management-position factors: Each manager within your organization explicitly identifies management-position factors unique to their teams. These CSFs may include communication protocols, work culture, or task delegation rules. Often, creating project roadmaps will help you identify your management-position factors.

When to define critical success factors

Define your CSFs during the project planning phase as you determine your goals, tasks, and deliverables. Top-tier leaders likely have broad, company-wide CSFs documented somewhere, so reference this information to create a comprehensive understanding of the factors your project plan must respect and meet. A good best practice is to define five success factors for each project deliverable to avoid overwhelming your team.

How to identify critical success factors: 4 steps

While some of your CSFs will be unique to your project, many come from upper management and transfer between initiatives. But no matter what yours are, here’s a four-step guide to correctly identifying critical success factors in project management.

1. Devise a strategic plan of action

Start by creating a comprehensive project plan outlining the following:

  • Tasks
  • Milestones
  • Deliverables
  • Necessary resources
  • Timelines

You can then use this information to pinpoint what you deem critical to success.

2. Define your CSFs

Working with upper management or reviewing their broader CSF documentation, review your project plan and list any make-or-break factors. If you’re building that website, this might include:

  • Meeting certain accessibility guidelines
  • Having CTAs on every page
  • Optimizing all content for Google Search

Once defined, double-check that this list addresses broader company CSFs, like sticking to a budget to respect yearly spending goals. Then, share this document with your team to gain and implement their feedback. You may find that some CSFs aren't necessary for your immediate needs, and you can cross them off the list.

3. Merge your CSFs with your KPIs

Identify your KPIs and correlate them with your essential goals and milestones, connecting the appropriate CSFs with each applicable KPI to make them actionable. You can then communicate your finalized CSFs with your team and delegate responsibilities.

4. Monitor and measure

Lastly, develop a way to track progress toward meeting your CSFs. You might use a Kanban board or Gantt chart to quickly gain visibility and offer your team an intuitive way of updating CSF-related tasks.

Examples of critical success factors in project management

Because CSFs sit somewhere between specific project deliverables and markers of success, trying to define these might feel confusing or daunting. Here are some examples to illuminate what they are and when they’re useful.

Marketing campaign CSFs might be:

  • Improving social media engagement
  • Increasing the volume of content creation
  • Rebranding your advertising messaging

Sales team success factors might be:

  • Maximizing your leads
  • Expediting the customer onboarding process
  • Improving your account management

Company mission-statement-related factors might be:

  • Reducing factory carbon emissions
  • Improving supply chain efficiency
  • Increasing stakeholder engagement

Whenever you manage a project related to these — and any other — initiatives, you’ll want to define your parameters for success.

Manage successful projects with Roadmunk by Tempo

CSFs are only as effective as they are visible. Use Tempo tools to provide your team with centrally located and flexible documents that offer them clarity and direction. Try Roadmunk by Tempo to create project roadmaps that help you brainstorm your CSFs. Then, use Timesheets by Tempo to track task progress related to these crucial factors.