The Difference between Critical Success Factors and Key Performance Indicators

What actions are critical to the success of your business and which effects are the most important?

If you’ve ever seen the acronym KPI or CSF in a business context, you’ve seen a shorthand to those two questions above. KPI stands for Key Performance Indicators, whereas CSF stands for Critical Success Factors. Some people use them interchangeably or confuse them, but they’re two totally different concepts.

The easiest way to understand them singly and in contrast is by understanding that CSFs are the cause of your success, whereas KPIs are the effects of your actions. Thus, there’s a tight relationship between them: if you’ve properly identified your CSFs and have been executing on them AND you’ve properly identified what your KPIs are, you should be meeting – or getting close to meeting – your KPIs.

If we drop the lingo, basically, we’re asking “what must we do to be successful?” (CSFs) and “what indicates that we’re winning?” (click to tweet – thanks!) (And, if we’re Charlie Sheen, “how can we tell if we’re bi-winning?” Alas, there’s only one Charlie Sheen. Duh!)

The use of KPIs can be strict or loose. Using them strictly means that you set a baseline, i.e. “$10k sales of this product line in a month is our baseline KPI;” in this use, if you get $10k sales in that product line, you’re meeting your KPIs. Using them loosely means that you’ll be watching data trends to determine whether you’re performing better, i.e. “we’ll be watching the sales data from this product line over this month since it’s a clear indicator of our performance.” Both ways of using KPIs have their uses; the more uncertain you are of the relationship between your CSFs and business momentum, the looser you’ll want to use KPIs.

The key part of KPIs is that they help you limit the amount of data you have to make sense of. The actions you take in your business often have many different effects, but not all effects are equal. For instance, gross revenue is almost always a KPI for every business, regardless of what stage of business they’re in, because one of the evergreen goals of a business is to generate profit. Because different actions and decisions may cause a drop in profit, sometimes profit isn’t the right metric to track because it will lead myopic decisions. In general, what we pay attention to grows, and KPIs help us pay attention.

These acronyms formalize and test our intuition, as well as getting us to really analyze the causes and effects of our business momentum. For example, many business bloggers posit an increase of traffic as a KPI and thus endeavor to do the things that increase traffic (informally making those activities CSFs), only to find out that an increase in traffic doesn’t actually affect their COV matrix. Brick-and-mortar business owners posit more people in the store as a KPI, only to find out that people aren’t actually buying anything while they’re in there and they need to rethink their sales process. I could go on, but you get where this is going.

So, over to you:

  • For this month, what are your goals as far as COV goes?
  • What are the KPIs that relate to those goals?
  • What CSFs will get you there?
  • Bonus: review some of your past activities that you thought were CSFs. If you did them, did you see a positive correlation between those CSFs, your KPIs, and your COV goals?

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  1. says

    Woah…this is some serious business/marketing theory here.

    Haha I have a new site and have found your content very helpful for motivating me to keep going.

    So if I understand this post correctly, KPI’s are basically goals? And CSF’s are ways that we measure success? Kind of? I dunno.

    Is it lame if I have a KPI for this month of attaining 10 unique visitors to my site a day? lol sigh…

    Anyways, thanks!

  2. says

    Im currently doing an essay and i was actually not quite sure and confused KPI’s and CSF’s for the same thing. So CSF’s are the cause of success while KPI’s are the outcomes of any action taken? I wonder where resources and capabilities come in then between these two.

    • says

      Hi Jonathan! Yes, CSF equals cause, KPI equals effect. Another way to think about this is that KPIs are lagging indicators – they only manifest after the lead (CSFs) indicators happen.

      Resources and capabilities come in prior to CSFs and after the KPIs. Here’s why: it takes resources & capabilities to generate effects, and the effects are often resources & capabilities.

      Example: it takes a team of 5 people and $25,000 of resources to work on Project X. If the CSFs are accurate and well-articulated – and the team executes on them – there will be some metrics and indicators of success. Some of those metrics and indicators would be increased resources and capabilities, assuming it’s a successful project.

      The reverse is true, for a project gone wrong depletes an organization of capabilities and resources.

      Does this help?

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