When Jason Nazar and I launched Docstoc years ago, we got 30,000 unique users on the first day.
I was ecstatic. I remember how my team of engineers and I were all high fiving each other, with big smiles on our faces. Then I walk into Jason’s office and he had a very different reaction. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “Hey, we got 30,000 unique visitors on the first day.”
Jason: “Yeah, we got 30,000 users on the first day.”
Me: “Yeah, we got 30,000. That’s great!”
Jason: “No, we got 30,000. That’s horrible!”
Me (scratching my head): “What do you mean? No one knew about the website yesterday and we got 30,000 uniques today. That’s great!”
Jason: “No, you don’t understand. We got only 30,000. That’s way too low.”
And then it hit me: We never really defined what success for the launch would look like. So we both looked at the very same facts — 30,000 uniques — and came to very, very different interpretations of what it meant for the business.
You’ve probably had a very similar experience at some point in your career. It’s not that you failed to deliver on the project goals. It’s that the bottom line expectations were not clearly defined. Someone, maybe you, didn’t define what success looks like. And if you don’t define what success looks like, how do you know when you’ve succeeded?
So many times when we plan projects for our businesses, we think through a mountain of details — the timeline, the budget, who’s doing what, and how we’re going to follow through after launch. We consider every little task that needs to get done and who will do it. We then manage it carefully, sprint by sprint.
Except, we often forget to go through one of the most critical tasks of all — agreeing on what the bottom line success will look like, and how we’re going to measure it.
Here is another, more recent example. At unGlue, we decided to build a new feature called Steps for Time, which rewards kids for physical activity like walking, running or working out. The more you walk, the more screen-time minutes you can earn.
You take your dog for a walk, you can earn more time. If you walk to school, you can earn more time. I loved this idea because parents are always trying to encourage their kids to be more active.
And so we decided to develop this feature. We decided on what it would look like and how it would work. We considered all of the steps needed to get the feature shipped. I worked on a PR strategy and a marketing launch plan.
Later, as the data come in, I remember meeting with my product lead. He’s telling me it was a huge success.
And I said, “What do you mean? It was not successful at all.”
He says, “What do you mean? We hit the goals. We hit the milestones on time. It looks amazing. It behaves beautifully. The users who are using it, love it! It’s a huge success!”
And I’m telling him: “What do you mean? We got almost no PR for it. Fewer than 5% of the users are using it, and we didn’t get any noticeable increase in app downloads. It’s a failure.”
And that’s when I realized, once again, holy shit, I fell into the same trap. Even though it was clear to me what success should look like, I didn’t clearly communicate it to the team. From where he stood in terms of responsibility, the project was a success. We hit our product milestones, and we launched on time. It looked absolutely amazing and people who used the feature did love it.
But from my perspective and from the business standpoint of getting A LOT more users to sign up for unGlue, it was a failure. It didn’t move the needle at all. We were both right, of course — looking at things from our own lens.
There are things we both could and should be celebrated. We completed the project on time. It looks amazing. People love it. People are using it. We should absolutely be proud of it and celebrate it, even if it’s not a huge business success.
However, we all needed to agree that this was not a good outcome for the business, as measured by the number of new users it drove. It didn’t change the metrics that were important for the business. If we had come to this understanding, we could have avoided, we could avoid having an argument about opinions and agree on the facts.
With the Docstoc launch, we had some things to celebrate. And we also had a lot of room for improvement. Yes, we were able to launch the website without a hitch (well, maybe a few…), but we also didn’t hit our biggest milestones for site visits. Both of these realities are true.
The vision of success for the overall business is a critical piece of information that is often not clearly communicated to everyone. So the leadership is disappointed and frustrated while everyone else is celebrating. They’re scratching their heads, asking: Why is everyone giving high-fives when we just wasted all of this time building something that didn’t make any difference whatsoever to the business?
Successes and failures should be shared across the company. But when success looks like failure to one team and failure seems like a success to another, then you’ve all made the crucial mistake of not setting the right expectations.
Make sure to clearly define what and how success should look like and share it with the team every time you meet. Bottom line: it’s hard to reach a goal that is not clearly defined.