Does Your Team Know What Success Looks Like?

Shot of a group of businesspeople high fiving in an office

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.

Own The Problem, Lead The Solution

Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where a major deadline wasn’t met. A sales goal wasn’t reached. An important deliverable wasn’t delivered.

People were waiting on you. You fell behind schedule. You or your team got distracted with other urgent matters. For whatever reason, you just couldn’t make it happen.

And then the house of cards collapses on itself. There’s no getting around the fact that you didn’t deliver as promised. You’re up shit creek without a paddle.

What do you do in this situation?

The first step is to avoid falling into an emotional state of mind, which we’re all prone to do at times like these.

Feelings of disappointment, despair, anger, and loneliness will likely surface because we are all emotional beings. Thoughts like “How the f*** did this happened?!” or “How do I dig myself out of this hole?” are normal, but you must move on.

You need to move to a more logical state. It might require a day off, working out at the gym, or even taking a few shots of your favorite liquid (just don’t overdo it!).

But do whatever it takes to avoid having an emotional overreaction. You can’t solve the problem unless you have a calm, clear mind.

The next step is to take ownership. That may not be so simple because sometimes our natural reaction is to find an excuse or to blame someone else when something goes wrong.

It might be your team’s “fault” for not working hard enough (“We all agreed on the plan! Why didn’t you stay late every day to finish it?”). it might be your boss’s “fault” for not communicating the priorities better (“The CEO keeps coming with new ideas and changes direction every week!”) or not being more clear about the process (“If we had more time for planning and feedback, we could have avoided this situation!”).

This kind of behavior started when we were kids. We never did anything wrong — things just “happened.” The lamp broke, but I didn’t break it. The teacher gave too much homework, so I didn’t have enough time to prepare for the test. And so on.

This mindset made no sense then and we shouldn’t fall into this trap now. I’m not saying we’re behaving like kids; I’m only saying that we find comfort in this false mindset.

The worst thing you can do is focus on finding fault. Trying to figure out who’s to blame won’t lead you to the solution.

You need to focus on ownership. You need to take responsibility. Whether you’re the team leader or an individual contributor (which means you’re leading yourself), you’re responsible.

The first step is to say: I own this. This is not where I want us to be. I’m not happy about it. I will own up to this mess, but I will also own the process of fixing it. It’s on me. I will lead the way toward a solution.

When you offer accountability in this way, what can the other person say but “OK, good! let’s get going”?

By being humble and honest, you have diffused the situation. By being accountable, you put the focus on working toward a solution rather than trying to place blame.

The first step is to say: I own this. This is not where I want us to be. I will own up to this mess, but I will also own the process of fixing it

By contrast, a lot of people focus on coming up with “reasons” for their failure. Saying things like, “Well, if we didn’t change priorities every week, we could have made our deadline” or “If you read my email updates, you would have known we were falling behind” only lead to more battles and more pushback.

Of course, you might be right. Maybe the CEO did change his or her mind every week. Maybe you did make it clear in status meetings and emails that you were falling behind. But none of that really matters now.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the long-term fixes should come later. You have to separate tactics from strategy at this stage. Your job right now is to figure out the tactical solution to your situation. The strategy part can wait.

Neither you, your boss nor your team can deal with both of these things at the same time. First, put out the fire and get things on the right track. Later on, you can focus on the systemic issues that led you into the problem in the first place.

If you’re an ambitious, hard-working, high-achieving individual, you will undoubtedly find yourself in a situation where you can’t deliver on your promises. You will disappoint your team, your boss, your investors, your board, and yourself. It will happen. You will fail.

And it’s not because you’re lazy or not smart. Quite the opposite, actually. People who are high achievers often push themselves beyond their own abilities. It’s how they grow and become better at what they do.

Just understand that life is one long school. Everything that happens to us is a teachable moment, whether we succeed or we fail.

You’re always going to face those dark times when everything is going to shit. What’s the most productive way to deal with it? It always starts with being accountable and taking responsibility. It starts with diffusing the situation by owning up to it.

You can’t change the past but you can create the future: Own the problem and take the lead to find a solution