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How do you decide what success means?

Ask any two people what success means to them and you’ll probably get two different answers – even from people who are in business together.

When you design and plan the rollout of a new product or service, you probably have an idea how you’d like it to perform in either sales units or dollars.

Or maybe you get an idea, decide it’s a good match for your customers/market and that’s enough to decide to build it.

Have you done that and then found that you built something no one wanted – or maybe that the market just wasn’t ready for the product, despite its merit?

I’ve done the latter. It isn’t fun when 30 customers in a sizable market get it and the other 20,000 don’t.

How do you know for sure, rather than by gut feel, that the effort invested in a new project is a success?

Ready, Fire, Aim?

In the software business, a pilot (or “proof of concept”) project is often used to determine if a project is viable.

If the reaction from enough customers provokes us to build it, then it might get built without a second thought. On the other hand, if the customers look at you with their head cocked to the side like a dog that just heard a “silent” dog whistle, you know we have some adjustments to make.

But…there really ought to be a step before that “not a second thought” part. Again, how do you know for sure that the effort invested in a new project is a success?

“More income or more customers” is an answer to “What do you want to gain from this project?”, but it isn’t necessarily a well-thought out, strategic one.

Strategic how?

Would it be useful to be able predict success? What things would you consider as “clues to success” before building a new product?

How about these: Financial return, number of new customers acquired, annual and lifetime value of newly acquired customers and types of customers gained/retained? Some customers are “worth more” than others. Some are a better fit to your business than others. Should a new product attract their attention? Should it push the “wrong kind” of customer away?

To simplify that list: Have you ever considered a product’s lifetime financial and strategic value *before* you built it?

Wouldn’t you want to know business outcomes in advance? Knowing that before before testing, much less before investing time and money into it, would likely help you make better decisions about design, pricing and more – including whether you should even build it.

Remember the old (and accurate) insurance sales saying “Most people don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan”? While planning doesn’t deliver the project, the mere presence of a well-thought out plan tends to result in better execution.

Better execution of what? For what time frame? How do you get from here to there – and at what level of performance?

You can’t just follow your nose. You need a map so you know when you’ve arrived or how much is left on the journey…or when to turn back.


This map concept is useful for contract work as well.

One of the things I do with clients when we get started on a project is produce a specific list of characteristics, outcomes, and deliverable items that the project will produce. It’s common ground that the client and I agree to in advance so we both know the meaning of “successful delivery” before we start.

Some projects, and some clients, require more detail than others – but the result is always a list of things that say “This project has been successfully completed as the client requested.”

Even so, when I think we’re done, I’ll ask “Is this what you envisioned when we got started?”

I do this because something that often derails a long business relationship is getting that “Are we there yet?” thing resolved so that both parties know when it is time to get paid. Getting paid revolves around agreeing on what “successfully completed” means. The “envisioned” question provokes more than a yes/no answer, which is exactly what I want.

While that list of outcomes/deliverables keeps us both accountable for knowing what success means, it doesn’t get us there.

That requires execution.



I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s.

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