Think, for a moment, of a bluebird. What you probably see in your mind’s eye is a blue, white and orange bird. If you’re somewhat of a bird buff, you might know the call. Regardless of how much detail you see, you can probably define a bluebird if put on the spot.
Now define a successful small business strategy. Or what you believe social media success is. Take a few minutes. We’ll wait.
That was much more difficult, wasn’t it? That has something to do with the simple fact that these concepts are much more complex than “look, a bird!” But it also has something to do with the notoriously poor job businesses large and small do at defining what success means to them.
Let me give you a purely hypothetical example of how this happens. Let’s say you have an executive team whose primary concern is pulling in as much revenue as possible. They may do this for virtuous reasons—to give to charity, to pump that money back into the business, to provide jobs in the local community—and they may do it out of the simple desire to make huge profits and get a nice yacht or two. In this example, we’re not judging.
So this objective is blindingly simple for the executives, but many don’t want to just say “let’s make a ton of money” in this day and age. So they pass along a definition of success that is much more vague, something like “we want to please every customer” or “if we could just increase our reach” or “let’s produce something truly game-changing.” They have defined success for employees, in other words, in terms that that are so vague as to be useless for
In the end, what you get is a muddled mess. Executives, managers and employees all have different ideas of what success means, not just for the company as a whole, but for each of them in their specific roles. By the time the year-end review comes, executives are unhappy because the money flowing in isn’t what they thought it would be, but employees think they’ve done a quality job because the other, softer metrics introduced to them are on the rise.
What happens next is fairly pro forma: Executives think employees aren’t working hard enough or focusing on what’s important, and employees come away bewildered and angry that their contributions aren’t being recognized. This is often made worse by the organizational dependence on buzzwords and an unwillingness to come out and say what’s really the matter. So a manager might sit down with an employee and say, well, what we need is something really exceptional. The employee retains his or her definition of exceptional, thinks he/she has already met it, and loses a little bit of faith in the organization. The manager, in turn, loses a little faith in the employee.
So my advice to businesses large and small—and particularly small, because the lines of communication are often more open—is to work out a definition that truly works. It’s not an exceptional product, it’s a product that brings in huge sales and 5% or less of your customers complain about. It’s not increasing the reach of your efforts both online and offline, it’s 500 more purchases of your products thanks to the combined effort of those channels. And so on. I’m not saying everything needs a number, and I’m certainly not saying you should make up an arbitrary number and make an employee adhere to it if it flies in the face of logic. I’m saying take pains to define what success looks like, so that you can look back at the end of the year and figure out whether you were successful, and what steps you need to take to get there if you weren’t.
A lack of definitions doesn’t breed success or obfuscate motives in a way that makes anyone happy at the end. Instead, it dooms your best efforts. Don’t fall into that trap.
How do you define success and communicate it?
Photo credit to iStock