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

8 Leadership Skills

8 leadership Skills

Trying to define leadership is like defining music. Trying to improve your leadership skills is like trying to write a song. There is no recipe, guidebook, or formula; it is much more art than science. You can sure learn the basics and some good fundamentals but at the end of the day, it’s about practice, learning from mistakes and learning from others. I never had a legendary mentor (Yoda was too busy) or a teacher that changed my life. Not surprisingly, very few of us have that. The way I keep improving my leadership skills is by learning from everyone and anyone around me, skills, behavior, habits, mistakes, how they speak, how they present, and so on. I have learned from my own mistakes and from the mistakes of others around me. You don’t have to have a mentor just open your eyes, learn and be ready to change. Here are some ideas I find important and some lessons I’ve learned.

Always look at the big picture

We usually start with the big picture, with the dream, with some huge aspiration. The challenge is that slowly and without noticing we’re getting sucked into the nitty-gritty tiny details, perfecting our idea, re-analyzing everything and suddenly we risk going astray without noticing. Try driving a car and only focus on ten feet in front of you. You’re most likely going to smash your car into bits (so don’t try it, just trust me). There is a reason why we focus on the road far ahead while driving. Always look far and try to see the big picture. The trick is that there is always a bigger picture that is eluding us. There is your current project big picture. Beyond that, there is this year’s big picture. Beyond that, there is your career big picture. Beyond that, there is your life big picture. Beyond that, there are things that are bigger than you. The current project seems pretty small details now, isn’t it?

Pay attention to details

Of course, only looking far will get your nowhere as you’ll stay with the dream. At the end of the day, it’s about the details and getting things done. Read emails all the way, find the typo in the copy, ask if that line on the design should really be there. Go back to it again and again examining it from every angle possible, and making small improvements, iteration by iteration. Nothing is perfect but you can sure get close.  The key is to balance seeing the big picture while paying attention to details. A good ratio is 90/10, where 90% time spent on details and 10% spent on the big picture

It’s all about the people

It drives me crazy when leaders and managers refer to employees as “resources”. Computers are resources, pens are resources; people are not. It may be just a figure of speech, but for me, it shows disrespect and lack of care. Leaders should care about the people they lead, care deeply. As the saying goes: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. Don’t pretend to; people are smart enough to see through phony behavior. You may be a great businessman, a great salesman, a great speaker, but if you don’t care about the people you lead, you are not a leader, you’re just a person taking a walk.

Mistakes are inevitable 

Over this weekend I heard someone describes this concept in the clearest way. He said: “At any given moment you are in one of these three states: you either just made a mistake, are in the process of making a mistake, or will make a mistake soon”. Just live with it, don’t worry too much about it but learn to recognize your mistakes, admit it and learn whatever there is to learn from it. Being afraid to make mistakes only holds you back. Embrace it, acknowledge it, learn from it, and move on!

Be brave and speak up

Be vocal, be open, be direct and be respectful. Nothing good ever came from people who kept things to themselves. I know this quite well since for a period of time I did keep things inside in some foolish hope to keep the peace.  As Bernard M. Baruch once said: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”. If you need more encouragement, listen to the song Brave by Sara Bareilles and just let the word come out.

Find your style

Don’t try to become like the leader you think you should be or the leader you admire. Leading is not about some persona, it is about doing the right things for the right reasons and inspiring others to follow you in that journey. You can do it just the way you are, with your unique style and way of leading. I like humor and use it all the time, I like knowing people personally and what makes them tick, and I like pushing things the limit. That is my style. What is yours? Oscar Wilde once said: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”.

Don’t get stuck in the past

We all know we need to learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. We all know we need to learn from the past and remember it. However, it is also important to leave the past behind. Sometimes we do or say things (or don’t do or say) that haunt us for a long time. Sometimes we miss opportunities, and sometimes, bad things just happen. Learn what is to learn, then let it go and move on. As Holocaust survival once said: “What was, was. What is, is. And that’s that”. If he can, you can too.

Believe in yourself

In the movie “Pretty Woman” Richard Gere tried to encourage Julia Roberts to believe in herself more, to which she responded with: “The bad stuff is always easier to believe”. Movies aside, it is the truth. I have seen it with others and I have seen it with myself. I have always been my own worst critic and most times things are never good enough. If funneled incorrectly it can and will drag you down. Turn it around, celebrate who you are, improve where you need to improve and march forward with your head held high. You can be your own critic if you’re also your own biggest fan. Believe in yourself as others do, they can’t all be wrong. Remember, “It is never too late to be what you might have been”.

Disrupt the Universe

nebula

We just came back from our family retreat, which is an annual program organized by my wife Orit’s school (NJCHS). The entire high school, student, faculty, staff, as well as the families are grouped together for three and a half days at a wonderful Kibbutz-like place (Brandeis-Bardin Institute). During these days, the students, with the help of the faculty are transformed into a stronger, tighter, more supportive community. Witnessing this was very impressive and inspiring.

Every year, the founding head of school, Dr. Bruce Powell, gives a speech. Dr. Powell is an inspiring leader and educator with a track record of establishing multiple Jewish high schools in the Los Angeles area. His speeches are never just any speech; they’re the type of of speech where you’re afraid to blink for you might miss a word, a verb, a gesture. For me, it is a chance to learn from a true leader who has proven again and again his ability to execute a vision into a reality. It is an important time especially because he is not the typical business/technology leader I usually hear, therefore provides me with a fresh perspective. I would like to share with you some of Dr. Powell’s speech, in my words.

It is said that the Founding Fathers of the United States of America have done something so extraordinary that they have “disrupted the universe”. They have created something so great and profound, so different and inventive that it changed everything. A new way of governing that did not exist before, which changed the course of humanity’s history and future forever in ways no one could have imagined, besides them.

However, this is not the only time the universe was disrupted. Many people before and after have made changes that disrupted the universe, some for good, some for evil. Some made changes in a small way and others in a bigger way.  Are these people really so few and far in between? Are these people so special that they only appear once in a few decades or centuries?

The truth is that we ALL have the ability to disrupt the universe; we all have that ability within us. It is not due to some unique gift, a random gene, a minimum IQ or a level of income.  It is simply a matter of will! Some factors are how hard are you willing to work to achieve your goal? How much are you willing to sacrifice? And how dedicated are you to the goal?

But one important point, which is often lost in the never-ending noise, is the ability to know a big thing from a small thing. I know it sounds trivial and obvious, important and truthful facts usually are. Really ask yourself: how often do you stop to think about what you’re doing in the big picture? How often do you pause to think if the task, project, argument, meeting, trip, deal or anything else you do with your wife, husband, partner, kids, employees, manager, partners, etc. are really important? How often do you really know big things from small things?

The answer is always: not often enough!

Especially because it is so easy to lose ourselves in the small tasks, to stay focused on the moment, to stay close to the familiar and the safe that we don’t ask the question: Is this important enough? Is this leading me in direction of my goal and vision? Is this a big thing or a small thing? These questions are so simple and obvious, yet we don’t ask it enough.

Maybe we’re not here to start nations, to build empires, to conquer courtiers or to find cure for cancer. Maybe we’re here to raise a family, to start a business, to be a friend, to help others grow, to lead, to create something that was not here just a second ago. Remember that everything you do disrupts the universe in some shape or form every little thing even if you don’t know it, just like the “butterfly effect”.

Your life is your personal journey to take. Remember that you have the ability to disrupt the universe, just stay focused, work hard, and always remember to know big things from small things.

Make it count!