The Key to Success


Throughout human history, teams have been chasing the thrill of victory. Armies, companies, and sports teams put in hours of training and build years of experience in pursuit of winning. Nothing I can write will obviate the need for all of that hard work, but no amount of effort can guarantee you’ll come out on top. There is, however, a single key. Without it, I can assure you that success will always elude your team.

The key to successPhoto Credit: hoshi7 via Compfight cc

As a firm believer in talent mobility, I’ve worked with teams of all sizes in large and small organizations, across a variety of industries. One benefit of my varied background is the diversity of perspectives to which I’ve been exposed. What a blessing to have had the opportunity to learn from so many others!

I wish I could say that every one of my endeavors had met with success. Sadly, I cannot, and I’m fine with that. The educational value of my experiences with each team is beyond measure. Here’s what I’ve learned: The Key to Success lies in its Definition.

That’s it? Yup. Your team will never win if they are not working toward a single definition of success. It sounds simple, because it is. Yet, time and again throughout my career, I’ve seen teams of smart, hard working people fail because they didn’t define success. Don’t let it happen to you!

Here’s a cheat sheet to help your team:

  • The definition has to come first. We’ve all known for a long time that you have to prioritize your work, right? Well, defining success for your team is the top priority for any effort. If you’re playing poker, it comes before table stakes. If you’re playing golf, it comes before paying greens fees. If you’re working on a project, it comes before Sprint 0. Do it first.
  • There can be only one definition. The entire team must work toward a single, common definition for success. Different ideas can, and should, contribute to the definition. Once a decision has been made, though, the team has to work together to achieve success. If this is a stumbling block, your team may be trying to do too much, or may need to divide and conquer.
  • Success must be measurable. This isn’t to say that your team’s definition of success must be quantitative. A perfectly reasonable definition for success might be: “Mrs. Smith will like the web site”. Irrespective of the unit of measurement, your team needs to understand what success “looks like”, so they’ll know it when they see it.
  • The definition must be communicated. Certainly, your whole team needs to understand what it means to be successful. Beyond that, I’d argue that you should share your definition of success with every stakeholder. Being transparent in your communication allows your team to focus on achieving and preempts second guessing during the decision making process. When your motives are clear and understood, you can focus on delivering.
  • The definition needs to be central. Every conversation, meeting, or decision should be made in light of your definition of success. All of your hard work needs to contribute to success. I highly recommend kicking off every practice, every meeting, every demo by declaring your team’s definition of success. Stay focused. See the same picture all the time.

I hope this helps your team. It certainly helps me to remember this fundamental lesson. Even after all of the times I’ve seen teams fall short without it, I’m still guilty of diving in without this core component.

One final hint, on that note: If you’re on a team who doesn’t know what success looks like, stop now to define it. The pause will enable future acceleration. Your team and your stakeholders will thank you. Does your team have a definition of success?


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