Call me a heretic, especially considering my line of work, but I’m about to share three terms that make my eyes roll back in my head:
Critical Success Factors
Key Performance Indicators (and its evil acronym, “KPIs”)
Don’t get me wrong. The ideas behind these terms are valuable. But they are overused, and unfortunately (too often) used to impress people and protect sacred cows.
What does it mean? It’s pretty self-explanatory: Something is critical to the success of your mission. Ah, but one should never use a word in its own definition. According to Wikipedia, it is “any factor of a system (equipment, process, procedure, software, etc.) whose failure will result in the failure of business operations.” The label lends an immediate air of importance to whatever it has been applied.
And, in my experience, it is too frequently used just to make something sound important; it is applied to things without any justification; and too often (in my humble opinion) organizations focus on projects and objectives that have been deemed Mission Critical without either articulating that Mission or involving their people with the Mission.
I recently was Followed on Twitter by an impressive leadership consultant and coach. I followed him back, but almost revoked it when I saw “mission-critical” in his web-page’s About section. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt when I saw that his most recent blog post was about passion.
Critical Success Factors
Again, that’s a pretty self-explanatory term: Critical Success Factors are things (people, processes, accomplishments, etc.,) that are critical to the success of your Mission Critical thing. Or, as Wikipedia says, “Critical success factors are those few things that must go well to ensure success for a manager or an organization.”
Again, this is an important label. Pronouncing something a Critical Success Factor says that without this person, process, accomplishment, etc., our seriously important thing is Doomed to Failure.
The real danger is not the snooze-factor that comes from over-use of this term. The real danger is its dialogue-stopping, investigation-stopping power. This Critical Success Factor is too important to question. We must protect it because it is, well, critical.
Key Performance Indicators
This is a relatively innocuous term that, like the others, simply means what it says on the surface: A Key Performance Indicator is a measurement (item on a report) that tells us how we’re doing. Not only in general but, because it’s a Key Performance Indicator, it must be about one of our Mission Critical, Critical Success Factors.
Wikipedia differentiates between Critical Success Factors and Key Performance Indicators in this way: “Critical success factors are elements that are vital for a strategy to be successful” whereas “KPIs, on the other hand, are measures that quantify management objectives and enable the measurement of strategic performance.”
Here, too, there is a danger that comes with the aura of Super-Importance conferred by the term itself. This measurement is a Key Performance Indicator and so we must give special attention to collecting the data around it and make decisions based upon what it tells us. Too often, though, other important signposts are overlooked.
This term, like the first two, is too often used by managers and consultants alike to confer importance on not only the items under discussion but on themselves as well.
For example, I was once telling a colleague about a process I was planning to help a client identify the skills that had the biggest impact on team members’ ability to do their jobs and which of those skills should be focused on for training or coaching.
“Oh, you mean the KPI’s,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, you should say that, then,” she said. “Otherwise your clients won’t respect you.”
Common language can be valuable, and…
Having common language can be very valuable. I encourage everyone, however, to be curious the next time you hear or read one of these terms, and ask a lot of questions:
What IS our mission?
Are we all on the same page with that?
How do we know?
Is this “mission critical” process, achievement, or (fill in the blank) really vital to that mission?
How do we know?
What are the things (people, processes, attitudes, perceptions, accomplishments, etc.) that are vital to that mission?
Are they measurable? How?
How will we define success?
What have we overlooked?
These are just some examples. There are many more that can (and should) be asked, and the asking, the curiosity, is the important part.
Here is an exercise for you
The next time you hear the term “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor” or “Key Performance Indicator,” see if you can find another way to say it. Then ask whether that term applies to the thing in question.
The terms “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor” and “Key Performance Indicator” seem like powerful language, but they are not. At least, not the power I choose.
I choose powerful language that makes people sit up and say, “Yeah!” “I can’t wait to find out!” “I want to know! So we can build something important!”
Do the terms “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor” and “Key Performance Indicator” do that for you?
If I’m talking with a client who manages an auto-body shop, or a salon, or a law firm, do you think he or she wants me to impress them with fancy words and jargon? No, I suspect not. So far they have responded enthusiastically to plain English.
I promise never to use the terms “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor,” or “Key Performance Indicator.” If I do, you have my permission snore very loudly. And then drive me crazy with questions.
What do you think? Please leave a comment!
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