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How to use critical success factors

Jed Simms
February 6, 2015

John Rockart coined the phrase ‘critical success factors’ in his HBR article of 1979. He defined them as the factors that need to be measured and managed as pre-requisites to success.

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

Two things worry me:

  1. If we adopt this definition, what do we call Rockart’s pre-requisite critical success factors?
  2. The underlying thinking 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.

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

Through our optimisation process at the business case stage, but before approval, we eliminate any high cost/low value outcomes or benefits that are not worthwhile pursuing. So we go forward with an optimised project with a clear set of measurable business outcomes, benefits and value to be fully delivered.

But we also organise these business outcomes into a 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 outcomes, their benefits and value—up and downstream.

If cuts to the scope are necessary, then the last-to-be-delivered outcomes are the ones that should be targeted as to cut any earlier outcomes will also impact their downstream dependent outcomes and their 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 to ensure the right factors exist or happen to ensure the success of our projects.

Jed Simms
Jed Simms is the founder and co-creator of Totally Optimized Projects, an internationally recognised strategy-based, business-driven approach to delivering projects. He specialises in project governance and control and value and benefits management. He is also the founding partner of consultancy Capability Management.
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