I open my consulting engagements with a simple question: what does success look like? It’s a simple question that helps ensure that the client and I share the idea of where we want to go. This short question is the first step towards a shared definition of success.
It’s happened more than once in my career. Projects have been technically completed without being “done.” In those cases, our team had done a tremendous job and could be rightfully proud of their accomplishment. Still, in the eyes of the client, it wasn’t finished. It simply wasn’t the result they had envisioned when the project began. The team and the client just didn’t have the same informal definition of success.
The severity of such a situation ranges from a temporary nuisance to causing a client to sever the relationship altogether. That’s especially likely if this is just one in a series of similar experiences the client has had with the freelancer or firm.
But it can be prevented.
Definition of Success: A Sorely Needed Term
Just like how “definition of done” has become a staple term in agile software development for acceptance criteria, I propose we also start talking about a definition of success. Having a shared definition of and criteria for success helps avoid scenarios like the one I described.
“But why, this is what we have requirements for…” you might say – yes if it only were that well. Requirements should function that way. Unfortunately, they’re often technical and focus on features, not on the intended results or the desired impact of the work. You could check all the boxes and the client still leaves unhappy.
Success is about expectations. After having talked to many agencies and freelancers over the years, it’s clear to me that intentionally managing expectations is a key factor for client satisfaction. A definition of success starts with effective expectation definition and management.
A process for creating a definition of success can consist of:
- Determining and define expectations on your and the buyer’s end.
- Compiling the results of your work, and determining where you’re of a similar mind and where you stand far apart, using the worksheet (see below).
- Organizing a workshop in which, together with the client, you define a shared definition of success.
- Communicating the definition of success to everyone involved in the project.
Step 1: Success Is Built on Effective Expectation Definitions
As common as the advice to “manage expectations” is, the answers to the question “how?” aren’t as easy to come by. In my experience, expectation management begins with asking the right questions from a foundation of empathy and doing so from the beginning.
Before we dig into those questions, lets first consider what “empathy” means in this context. In this case, empathy refers to viewing the project and its circumstances from the eyes of your influential (and sometimes economic) buyer.
The influential buyer isn’t always the client since the client may have more than one representative. They may not even be attending your meeting. The influential buyer is usually the one holding the purse strings. This is the person who can cancel the project if something feels wrong. They’re the final judge and arbiter of success.
Here’s the clincher: Whether this person considers your project a success can appear totally arbitrary to you. It may even be arbitrary. As humans, we are generally ruled by emotions which we justify using logic. Understanding the influential buyer’s decision-making requires decoding their “logic.”
Who the influential buyer is isn’t always obvious. It may not be the formally more senior person you’re meeting. It could be an experienced member of the team that the formal manager or lead refers to. It’s important to understand who the influential buyer is. This is so you can adapt your communication style and manage their expectations first and foremost.
Putting Yourself In the Shoes of the Influential Buyer
Having a sense of who the influential buyer is will help when trying to establish common ground. That’s why it’s a good idea to meet with a prospective client informally over lunch or coffee before tackling the work. Use the informal setting to identify who the influential buyer is.
Through conversation, learn about them and what they’ve done in the past. Get an impression of their personality and preferences. Are they creative and innovative? Or are they looking for a safe and proven option? Are they pedantic or more relaxed knowing they’re dealing with the right people?
The goal is to be able to accurately answer the following questions:
What Are the Major Risks in This Project Given What We Now Know About Our Client and Their Influential Buyer?
What you consider to be potentially problematic doesn’t necessarily match what the client views as risky. Many risks are also the result of mismatching ideas or expectations between agency or freelancer, and client. Even if you have done a risk analysis, it’s wise to revise it after you have a better idea of where your client is coming from.
What Is This Influential Buyer’s Idea of Success?
This is my favorite question. It clears the waters immediately and takes away a lot of potential miscommunication. It’s not rare that two people in the same room talk about two completely different things using the same words.
This was made strikingly obvious to me while attending a course in scrum and agile software development. The teacher on the course set up a role-playing exercise which (if I recall correctly) consisted of trading with other groups. Unbeknownst to the participants, each group had been given different sets of rules. As a result, many drew the conclusion that the other party tried to cheat them once trading began. The exercise was intended to simulate cultural misunderstandings. But I think it applies to how we talk about desired outcomes too.
What Is Our Idea of Success?
In contrast to the client’s, what’s your idea of success? It’s absolutely fine to say that a “happy team” and “no overtime” are success criteria. In my experience, teams that tend to overwork have rarely made those goals explicit.
Just like how the client will likely define success on their terms, you should define it on yours. A happy client is naturally highly desired. But is it an attractive outcome if it means your people are suffering for it? Probably not.
What Is Important to This Client and How Do We Deliver It?
While success is important, there is often more than one checkbox to fill. Success can be achieved by many different means and some ways involve cutting corners. It’s a good idea to early learn what tradeoffs you can make.
If you build applications, a startup might trade maintainable code for an MVP (minimum viable product) release for speed. But if their CTO sends you detailed instructions about how to format comments in the source code, it’d be wise to find out if that’s a symptom of an unspoken requirement.
How Do We Best Communicate With This Client to Manage Expectations?
We’ve all heard the old adage, “the client is always right.” In reality, it’s rarely the case. In a collaboration, as between a consultant and their client, everyone’s needs to be considered. We all have different habits and needs. Especially so when it comes to communication. I’ve talked to many agencies complaining about “needy” clients. In some such cases, I think the frustration is caused by a mismatch.
Communication is an important aspect of culture. Perhaps you’re not comfortable or willing to communicate in a way that the client expects or demands. That’s fine. People work at your company because of what that company is and stands for. If you compromise too much, people might start looking for work elsewhere. Adapting to a client’s cultural assumptions is a potential risk to you, whether you’re a freelancer or a company.
What Does This Client Need to See to Feel at Ease?
While communication is indeed a key aspect of keeping a client informed and comfortable, there’s usually more to it. It’s often not as much about what you say, as what you ask and how you do it. The right questions, delivered the right way, can put your client at ease.
Learning about the influential buyer’s learning style also helps. Your client may prefer visual explanations over text. Perhaps they abhor emails. If so, try to call them instead and use email to make phone call appointments.
What Mistakes Did Previous Agencies Make That We Don’t Want to Repeat?
There are incompetent agencies and freelancers, as well as clients “from hell.” That’s the state of the world. It’s good to find out early if this particular client matches that description.
One way of doing that is learning of previous projects and why they were successes or not. Listen extra carefully to how the client talks about accountability and whether what they express sounds reasonable or fair.
Step 2: Use the Worksheet to Write Your Definition of Success
You now have a starting point for a definition of success. You can use the attached worksheet to compile the answers to the questions above. It’s important that you consider both your and the buyer’s perspective.
The worksheet helps you identify areas where you may both need to compromise. Once the worksheet is complete, organize a workshop with the client.
Step 3: Workshop With the Client to Define a Shared Definition of Success
I recommend using a workshop format to collaborate around a definition of success. Try to involve as many as possible from both companies.
Given that you do it together with the client, some might say it’s unnecessary to write out answers to these questions beforehand. The reason for doing it beforehand is to come prepared. The better you know your needs and position, the better you’ll be at explaining them. The more you show you’ve considered and understood the client’s position, the more they’ll trust you.
Keep the definition of success as short and effective as possible. Ideally no more than a few bullets. If possible, use numbers as quantifiers to avoid ambiguity. It’s better to write “increase conversions by 27%” than just “significantly increase conversions.”
Step 4: Make Sure Everyone on the Project Knows What Success Means
Last, but not least, ensure that the definition is well known. I prefer visualizing information. If it’s particularly important I like printing it out on a large sheet of paper and sticking it to a wall. In sight – in mind.
If you’re working remotely, there are no walls you can plaster with printouts. Instead, you can refer to the definition of success at every standup. Done right, the definition helps everyone make decisions and prioritize features and solutions. A good definition of success is especially valuable to a product or project manager as it helps them make better decisions on their feet.
Grab the Definition of Success Worksheet
I’ve created a Google spreadsheet you can copy and use as a worksheet. You can use this worksheet in the second step of the process to arrive at your own definition of success: Definition of Success Worksheet
Conclusion: Writing a Shared Definition of Success Prevents Many Issues to Arise and Defines Mutual Goalposts
There are many factors that influence the often subjective idea of project success. By knowing your culture and that of the client, you can handle issues preemptively by writing a shared definition of success.
To do so, it’s important to enter meetings with an open mind. Try to check your own assumptions at the door. It’s only by being receptive to the needs of others that we stand a chance to meet those needs.
It’s through dialog you can arrive a working definition of success. A definition that establishes the goals and ambitions of your specific project and collaboration.
What things do you consider to be critical success factors?
Please share in the comments.