The Ultimate Guide to Project Critical Success Factors

In the last 20 years there has been a huge amount of work done on identifying the critical success factors that underpin project success.

I’ve included a summary of the critical success factors below. Its a comprehensive list, but for the more discerning reading I would encourage you to explore deeper. Are you seeking the success factors that underpin effective project management, a successful project or a successful strategic outcome for your business? They may not be the same thing.

There is a huge body of analysis that underpins this so if the critical success factors are new to you then I would recommend exploring some of the links.

For the more seasoned practitioners much of this won’t come as a surprise. Critical success factors form the cornerstone of a lot of the P3M body of knowledge. Therefore, project managers have everything they need to deliver their projects on time and deliver value …. don’t they?

If only this were true. Research from the PMI and APM provide insights into the vast number of projects that don’t deliver within the approved envelope. Although much has improved from 2016, the 2017 PMI survey highlighted an average of $97 million dollars lost for every $1 billion invested. There are a multitude of GAO and NAO reports that highlight where projects have not gone to plan. My earlier blog summarised a number of IT project failures that have cost society $billions – I’ve found another 35 since I wrote it! There is a rich seam of evidence to delve into.

So what?

As a profession we have invested a lot of time and effort to identify the critical success factors that influence success. They have certainly helped to guide improvements, but they haven’t provided the silver bullet? Why not?

The realities of delivery

Someone who is leading a >£500m project is probably acutely aware of the factors that influence success. They will have a raft of experience, supported by high quality training and development. At the start of the project they will have their approach mapped out and will have a plan for delivery. But the realities of life start to get in the way. Resources don’t materialise as planned, management evolves, budgets get shaved, stakeholders change their minds….projects exist in a world of complexity. Project delivery becomes a series of compromises and negotiations.

So if the critical success factors aren’t enough, what is missing?

  • The cost of underperformance Understanding what key issues are impacting project delivery across the organisation, how frequent and their magnitude. If we don’t really understand how good or bad it is, how do we justify the investment and motivate people to improve?
  • Assurance If we know what the critical success factors, why don’t we implement them? Life often gets in the way and project delivery teams get spread too thinly. It is important to keep an eye on the destination and bring constructive challenge to priorities. Not via a superficial box ticking, tyre kicking process, but through dialogue between governance and the delivery team, informed by independent review and scrutiny. Coaching and support, rather than being drawn over the coals. Driven by evidence, case studies and real world insights in order to win hearts and minds.
  • Root cause Explore the root cause, but through forensic examination rather than superficial apportionment of blame. Although Trevor Kletz published his first insights into learning from accidents in the 1990s, much of his thinking is still incredibly relevant. A spark can initiate an explosion, but the accumulation of combustible vapour made the end result inevitable. We need to look beyond the obvious.
  • Learning from our lessons I have reviewed nearly 10,000 lessons identified and its clear that the same themes arise, lessons aren’t actioned, organisations rarely look beyond their own organisational boundaries. Failure is often preceded by the desire to demonstrate progress and ask for forgiveness later rather than taking time to learn the lessons of the past and deliver.
  • Lessons can often be superficial, developed by people with vested interests. They need to get into the detail, sharing insights that enable others to relate to and connect with the challenge. When the guidance refers to ‘better risk management’, what does this mean? What are the risks that have affected other similar projects, how did they respond and what was the outcome? Only then will the insights that underpin critical success factors be brought to the fore.

 

 

  • Complexity One of the key factors that derails a project is complexity. Its not a success factor in its own right because its a condition of the project environment. However, if the other success factors aren’t aligned with the nature of the complexity then the approach is unlikely to endure or deliver the value that the research tells us it should.

 

Is it time for us to stop researching, blogging and revisiting the project success factors and look deeper into why organisations don’t follow the golden rules?

 

A summary of Project Critical Success Factors

 

APM

The Association for Project Management published their conditions for project success. Their top 12 were:

  1. Effective governance
  2. Goals and objectives
  3. Commitment to project success
  4. Capable sponsors
  5. Secure funding
  6. Project planning and review
  7. Supportive organisations
  8. End users and operators
  9. Competent project teams
  10. Aligned supply chain
  11. Proven methods and tools
  12. Appropriate standards

 

NAO

The NAO’s report on ‘Improving IT procurement’ cited a number of themes that continue to arise in gateway reviews:

  • the need for involvement of key stakeholders;
  • the clearer identification of the roles and responsibilities of departments
  • and suppliers in the governance of IT-enabled projects;
  • improved development of business cases, particularly on the scope and content;
  • better risk management; and, improved skills and resources, including resource planning, succession planning, and the quantity and quality of suitably skilled staff.

 

The UK’s Office for Government and Commerce published a  report on common causes for project failure (success factors are the inverse).

  1. Lack of clear links between the project and the organization’s key strategic priorities (including agreed measures of success)
  2. Lack of clear senior management and ministerial ownership and leadership
  3. Lack of effective engagement with stakeholders
  4. Lack of skills and a proven approach to project management and risk management
  5. Too little attention to breaking development and implementation into manageable steps
  6. Evaluation of proposals driven by initial price rather than long term value for money (especially securing delivery of business benefits)
  7. Lack of understanding of, and contact with, the supply industry at senior levels in the organization Lack of effective project team integration between clients, the supplier team and the supply chain.

 

GAO

The GAO published a report on Critical Factors Underlying Successful Major Acquisitions for IT

  1. Program officials were actively engaged with stakeholders.
  2. Program staff had the necessary knowledge and skills.
  3. Senior department and agency executives supported the programs.
  4. End users and stakeholders were involved in the development of requirements.
  5. End users participated in testing of system functionality prior to formal end user acceptance testing.
  6. Government and contractor staff were stable and consistent.
  7. Program staff prioritized requirements.
  8. Program officials maintained regular communication with the prime contractor.
  9. Programs received sufficient funding

 

Academia

Daniel Ofori wrote a very useful paper that pulls together a number of academic papers summarising critical success factors:

 

Further analysis conducted by Schmidt, Lyytinen, Keil & Cule on the causes of failure in IT projects in 2001

Lack of top management commitment to the project

  1. Misunderstanding the user requirements
  2. Not managing change properly
  3. Failure to gain user commitment
  4. Lack of adequate user involvement
  5. Conflict between user departments
  6. Changing scope and objectives
  7. Number of organizational units involved
  8. Failure to manage end-user expectations
  9. Unclear / misunderstood scope and objectives
  10. Improper definitions of roles and responsibilities
  11. Lack of frozen requirements
  12. Introduction of new technology
  13. Lack of effective project management skills
  14. Lack of effective project management methodology
  15. Lack of required team knowledge / skills
  16. Insufficient / inappropriate staffing

 

Further analysis by Terry Cooke-Davies in his paper “The ‘‘real’’ success factors on projects” in 2000

  1. F1 Adequacy of company-wide education on the concepts of risk management.
  2. F2 Maturity of an organisation’s processes for assigning ownership of risks.
  3. F3 Adequacy with which a visible risk register is maintained.
  4. F4 Adequacy of an up-to-date risk management plan.
  5. F5 Adequacy of documentation of organisational responsibilities on the project.
  6. F6 Keep project (or project stage duration) as far below 3 years as possible (1 year is better).
  7. F7 Allow changes to scope only through a mature scope change control process.
  8. F8 Maintain the integrity of the performance measurement baseline.
  9. F9 The existence of an effective benefits delivery and management process that involves the mutual co-operation of project management and line management functions.
  10. F10 Portfolio- and programme management practices that allow the enterprise to resource fully a suite of projects that are thoughtfully and dynamically matched to the corporate strategy and business objectives.
  11. F11 A suite of project, programme and portfolio metrics that provides direct ‘‘line of sight’’ feedback on current project performance, and anticipated future success, so that project, portfolio and corporate decisions can be aligned.
  12. F12 An effective means of ‘‘learning from experience’’ on projects, that combines explicit knowledge with tacit knowledge in a way that encourages people to learn and to embed that learning into continuous improvement of project management processes and practices. Indeed, for Kerzner, continuous improvement represents the fifth and highest stage of project management maturity in an organisation.

 

Scottish Government

The Scottish Government also publishes an annual summary of lessons learned, gleaned from its assurance reports: [note, this document has been removed since publication]

 

Closing thoughts

Hopefully this will be of a lot of help to those who have an interest in critical success factors. I’ve not captured every piece of analysis ever produced, but I believe that these are the key ones. Please let me know if you have any more…

Is this ultimate guide to critical success factors enough? Will it change your approach to managing projects or it is ‘motherhood and apple pie’ and you already knew most of it? If so, why do so many projects still go wrong?

Do we need more analysis or is it time that we work beyond the headlines, drill down into the detail and use data to drive the priorities for how we intervene and enable the project management community to deliver a step change in delivery productivity?