Critical success factors in complex projects

The other week I joined a number of peers at IndigoBlue‘s November Second Wednesday breakfast to discuss the subject of critical success factors in complex projects. As usual it was held under the Chatham House rule. What follows, then, are not minutes, but some of the important discussion points that stuck with me.

Measures of success - Photo by Green Heat / J LContents


Critical success factors are those factors on which a project’s success is judged. These may include reducing a costbase, increasing efficiency, opening up a new market, etc. Knowing what they are, and putting them to work, become especially important in complex projects where there is the potential for so much noise and error.


Critical successful factors can be used for two things: governance (ensuring the programme develops in the right direction) and communication (keeping everyone focused on the right thing).

Of course, there is an interplay between the two. Using CSFs as a framework for communicating to the steering group ensures better leadership (governance). Using CSFs as a framework for communicating to the operational team means better decision-making (prioritisation) on a day-to-day basis.

Varying communication

How CSFs are then communicated will vary, dependent on the audience. For the governance group it can be part of a formal process. For the operational team it might be cards stuck on a wall.

During the Guardian’s R2 programme we stuck the CSFs on a wall, ensuring everyone who cared to look knew exactly what our priorities were. At the time we called them key performance indicators (KPIs), although I think that was wrong: KPIs are usually regarded as continuously measurable healthchecks. I think “critical success factors” would have been a better name.


Communicating a project’s critical success factors helps traceability, which I interpret as being able to trace the line from what I am doing now to what this programme is all about. However, it was pointed out that traceability does not appear in traditional agile literature. I think that’s because agile literature tends to start with software development and peters out as you go up the management stack. It’s a failure of the literature, and a reminder that no methodology at any level should exclude good management and leadership.

Success factors are relative

Any individual’s personal success factors are going to be based on their work and influence. A project manager will be concerned about budget and deadlines even though those factors may be secondary (non-critical) to delivering a particular capability or enhancing brand reputation may be more important. The project manager is focused on budget and deadlines because they feel that all they have the authority to influence. That’s clearly not ideal.

For the R2 programme removing legacy systems was an acknowledged success factor. Unfortunately for many technical people it was also acknowledged not to be critical. This certainly influenced prioritisation, and we ended up not decommissioning as much as we’d have liked. A shame for the techies, but we knew we had achieved success overall.

Leaders are responsible for balance

Given that individuals have their own success factors, it’s a leadership responsibility to ensure the right balance is achieved, particularly when there are obvious conflicts. A team lead must balance between feature delivery and test time. A project manager must balance between supplier responsibility and internal effort. A programme manager must balance between budget pressure and ease of business change. The governance group must balance between stated objectives and new opportunities.

Throughout the work there will be conflicts of objective, and the entire project depends on those individuals sitting above the level of the conflict to make a decision and keep it going in the right direction. This is a responsibility of leadership.

Application to the financial year

We’ve been focused mainly on critical success factors for projects: time-limited activities with ringfenced budget. But critical success factors can equally apply to a company’s financial year. If you’re budgeting for something shouldn’t you be defining success criteria for it? And if you’re budgeting for a 12 month period, shouldn’t you be defining success criteria for that 12 month period? If not it’s a gift, not an investment.

So, a lot to think about. But perhaps one thing stands out among all these: actually knowing what your success factors are is the essential first step.