Critical Success Factors: What They Are and How to Use Them to Boost Project Productivity

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

What is absolutely essential to the success of your organization or specific project? Whatever you’re picturing — those are your critical success factors or CSFs. These are the things that are absolutely vital to achieving your desired outcome.

What exactly are critical success factors? How do you identify them? How do you leverage them for success? Let’s take a look.

What are critical success factors?

Critical success factors are those variables that are absolutely essential for achieving the goals of a particular business initiative or project. In other words, if they are not present, your initiative will not properly succeed.

At the get-go of a project or program, you must define these factors. It’s also necessary for you to track them, using established benchmarks and key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure your progress.

Of course, your critical success factors will depend on your unique goals, organization’s overall mission and other objectives. They are unique to a particular business, although there can also be general critical success factors that you’ll find frequently from one company to the next.

Critical success factors are always high-level goals that are fundamental to the success of both the unique project and the organization as a whole. In order to formulate a CSF that is successful, you should be able to directly relate it to a business principle or strategy within your organization. This will allow you to prove and measure its overall impact.

Typically, these CSFs are developed by leadership and management, who have a deep understanding of the company’s overall strategy and can appropriately link them to it and define how they will improve the business.

How to use critical success factors in project management to get ahead

As you might imagine, critical success factors are critical to project management. But putting them into practice is easier said than done.

Many professionals rely on the SMART method for completing projects and tasks, but this method can also apply to utilizing critical success factors for team projects, too. SMART stands for:

• Specific

• Measurable

• Achievable

• Relevant

• Time-bound

But this is just a starting point for outlining and leveraging critical success factors. You should also be sure to incorporate the following steps.


The first step is identifying the critical success factors for your project. Which ones are the foundation of your plans for the program or project going forward? We’ll go into greater detail about how to identify critical success factors below.


There are multiple assessments concerning your critical success factors. Consider, for example, the risk factors associated with your project. Try to pinpoint the risks associated with your CSFs at the beginning, while at the same time understanding that others could crop up along the way. Devise plans for addressing or mitigating the risks, so you’re not going in blind.

It is also critical to assess the scope of these goals — what it will take to accomplish them. This will allow you to develop benchmarks and a roadmap.


Tracking the progress of your critical success factors at every stage of the project, using metrics you’ve previously established to see how your CSFs are progressing.


It’s fundamental for all projects — communication. If you’re the one leading the initiative, make sure you’ve established the best channels for communicating about and carrying out your goals and objectives. Document your communication, even if it’s not written, so you can reference it in the future.

Measure, measure, measure.

Once you’ve met (or failed to meet) your critical success factors, measure the results of your efforts. This will allow you to see what went right, what went wrong and what you should do differently next time. 

Really spend some time with your results, analyzing how your critical success factors contributed to the project coming to fruition and how they might be altered in the future, as well as how to prioritize them.

How to identify critical success factors for your project

How do you know what’s actually a critical success factor that’s fundamental for your project — and what’s just a factor? This will vary considerably from project to project and from team to team. In order to determine the integral CSFs, start by asking yourself some key questions. For example, ask yourself:

• What is the environment like for my project? How must it be enhanced in order for my project to succeed?

• What conditions does this environment require?

• What resources are absolutely critical for building my project?

• What information or which facts do I need to support my project and bring it to completion?

• What skills and competencies should I have on my team?

• Which team members are foundational to my project’s success?

• What metrics are we going to use to measure success?

• What do we all (or individual members) need to learn how to do?

• What, if anything, do we need to change?

• What kind of funding do I need to complete every stage?

• What other factors are crucial to your project’s ultimate success?

Of course, you’re not the only one who should be answering these questions — you also need input from the entire team. Consider the forums that would be best for generating thoughts, such as a group brainstorming session. Or, you could ask team members to develop ideas independently, using these questions as a jumping-off point, and together pinpointing the critical success factors that are actually, well, critical. Make this an opportunity to learn more about the project and teach employees by delivering ample feedback.

Remember, too, that identifying critical success factors is a process. And you can’t just list them in your head and call it a day. Once you’ve honed in on these CSFs, actually write them down. Make them actionable — things you can do and accomplish. Take care with your phrasing, using action verbs. Keep the CSFs short and concise, involving as few words as possible to avoid confusion with both you and your team later on. 

You should also connect each critical success factor that you have identified or are in the process of developing to a bigger-picture goal and your overall business strategy and mission. Remember: these are meant to support your larger initiatives, not serve as standalone, project-specific goals.

When you begin formulating your CSFs, ensure that they are complete and actionable by also visualizing the benchmarks and lower-level goals that will be involved. Consider, too, how you will be able to track and measure them. Then, continue to check in on your critical success factors so you can analyze their progress.

5 examples of critical success factors

Critical success factors are present across every industry and sector, whether you define or label them or not. While you may not have previously been aware of what these factors actually represent in the grand scheme of things, chances are, you’ve used them to dictate the terms of a project in the past. 

Because you should aim to identify critical success factors at the beginning of a project in the future, you should become familiar with examples of these CSFs. We’ve gathered together a list of factors that tend to pervade many different fields.

Specifically, examples of critical success factors include:

Recruiting and hiring the top 5% of talent in the industry, field or niche.

Attracting top talent is a clear critical success factor because, without it, you risk falling behind your peers and competitors in a rapidly changing market. While not necessarily part of a particular project, this is foundational to your entire business.

• Improving customer loyalty to a specific brand or line of products.

Gaining the support of your audience is one measure of dictating the success of your brand — and an incredibly important one at that. This is an essential CSF factor for sales teams — and really any team or entire organization.

• Training and/or educating employees on how to leverage a new tool or piece of equipment.

In order to complete any job, the people involved need to understand how to use the tools they are tasked with using. Getting your employees up to speed on using technology and other equipment with which they may not be familiar should always be a priority.

• Gaining managerial and leadership support for launching a new initiative that you believe is fundamental to the company’s success.

Without support from the leaders at your company, you won’t be able to carry out any projects. That’s why it’s absolutely imperative that you garner support from the top officials at your business, those tasked with granting permission to follow through on your work.

• Getting the proper funding for the software necessary to complete a project.

Money — it’s sometimes an uncomfortable subject to discuss, but it’s no less of a necessary one. In order to achieve the results you want, you absolutely need to get the proper funding for your project.

By now, it’s probably clear that defining your critical success factors before your project and consciously referring to them, as well as establishing benchmarks and goals to measure your progress, will increase the likelihood that your project will succeed. And that’s just part of the story. These high-level goals, even when they only concern specific projects, can also mean success for the larger business, too.

About the Career Expert:

 Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.