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Project management success factors

Understanding Critical Success Factors in Project Management

Scott BedgoodScott Bedgood
Scott Bedgood
Scott Bedgood

Successful project management requires a combination of tools, techniques, knowledge and skills. Most projects have lots of moving parts and many different tasks to oversee and coordinate; as a freelancer, it can be easily overwhelming.

If you’re going to stay on track, there’s one aspect that you need to master: understanding critical success factors in project management.

What are critical success factors?

Critical success factors, or CSFs (also referred to as Key Results Areas, KRAs), are different activities that you have completed as part of any given project. As the name suggests, they are critical for success in your project and have a major impact on its overall viability.

Clearly defining CSFs will allow you to prioritize your project’s components, determine where you need to focus your attention, enable identifying potential risks and help you organize your time. This is especially valuable if you’re managing multiple projects at once.

Being S.M.A.R.T. when defining your CSFs

As you set out identifying CSFs for your project, a good rule of thumb is using the S.M.A.R.T. methodology. This is a useful acronym that will help you set and accomplish your goals.

Under this methodology, “S” stands for specific. You’ll want to be as specific as possible or you won’t be able to truly focus on your ultimate goal. Here you’ll want to keep in mind the five “W” questions, which are who, what, why, where and which. This will help you be as clear as possible.

“M” means measurable. Since you’ll need goal tracking so you can stay motivated, they must be measurable, which means your CSF will answer questions like how many and how much.

“A” is achievable. Ideally, you will feel challenged towards reaching your goal, but you want to make sure that your goal is ultimately attainable. In fact, when you’re specific about defining your achievable goal, you may be able to identify resources that will help you along the way.    

“R” is relevant, where this particular goal aligns with your other goals and objectives. We recommend answering the following types of questions in the affirmative: Is it the right time for pursuing this goal? Is it worth it pursuing this goal? Am I the right person for pursuing this particular goal?

“T” stands for time-bound. Your goal must have a deadline so you have something for working towards. Questions we recommend answering include what can I do today, and what can I do six weeks or six months from now to get me closer towards achieving my goal?

Examples of project management critical success factors

If we use the S.M.A.R.T. methodology for defining our CSFs, they would look something like this: 

  1. Specific: Your critical success factor might be sending out an email campaign to at least 200 qualified leads as part of the project. Note how this is much more specific than simply saying you want to do outreach.
  2. Measurable: Your CSF could be outsourcing designing aspects of the project to a graphic designer with corresponding certifications and proven experience. This is better than simply aiming for collaboration with a “good” designer.
  3. Achievable: A strong CSF that is attainable could be creating a piece of content that ranks on the first page of Google. This is more realistic than aiming for the number one spot.
  4. Relevant: With regard to this criteria, your CSF might be contacting five sources in the industry and providing quotes for an article, which is relevant towards your overall goal of writing an article with superior and unique insight for your audience. 
  5. Time-bound: Always set a deadline so you have something for working towards; that can be next week, in six weeks, or even in six months.

Critical success factors vs. key performance indicators

It’s not uncommon for CSFs to be confused with key performance indicators, or KPIs, but they are very different. 

The former could actually be described as “input,” or those components that you need to “win” for your project or be successful. In contrast, the latter would be the “output” and a way of determining how the project performed and if you really did “win.”

In short, you need CSFs for achieving your goal, and KPIs will tell you whether they’re working or not.

Using your CSFs 

Understanding critical success factors is one of the essential components of proper project management, and following the advice we lay out here will put on you the right path. 

Once you define your CSFs properly, you’ll feel motivated and organized as you will have identified the steps you need for working towards the completion of your project. Critical success factors allow you to establish your priorities, identify any risks and seek out the resources you’ll need to move forward and achieve your project goals.

Scott Bedgood
Scott Bedgood is a journalist and author based in Dallas, TX. He's written for Success Magazine, Texas Monthly, Cowboys & Indians Magazine, Texas Highways, bodybuilding.com, and more. In his career, he's interviewed Grammy winners, Emmy winners, Hall of Famers, and professional jogglers (that's juggling + marathon running). He's the author of Lessons from Legends: 12 Hall of Fame Coaches on Leadership, Life, and Leaving a Legacy which features interviews with legendary college football coaches like Steve Spurrier, Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne, Barry Alvarez, and more. In addition to writing, he is a podcaster and video editor. A short film documentary he made about his indoor soccer team premiered at the Texas Theatre, the same theater where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested. He and his wife Sami met at the University of Oklahoma and now live in Texas with their one-year-old son and two rescue dogs

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