Defining Success

  |  March 3, 2011   |  Comments

You cannot be successful in a project unless you have defined success. But who is allowed to declare success and who has the authority to pull the plug?

I threw away a lot of stuff this month. I refurbished my office and unloaded that which did not deserve to be moved out and then back in again. But a yellowed article, torn from an old newsprint edition of Computerworld Magazine caught my eye and I couldn't quite let it go.

"Spelling Success" was written by Ed Yourdon, a software engineering thought leader whom I saw keynote many times and whose articles I read avidly. That was decades ago when I was the marketing guy for a software development tools company. (When my mother asked what that meant, I said, "I sell programs that help programmers write programs." She replied, "That's nice, dear.")

Ed made several important points about project management in his article. The most obvious, you know full well: you cannot be successful in a project unless you have defined success up front. How will you recognize if your project is triumphant? This rings so very true in the metrics business. Whether you're measuring website visits or social media activity, simply measuring for measurement's sake is a waste of time.

But there were two other very cogent concepts that are just as critical today when it comes to verifying the business value of your online marketing efforts.

Who is allowed to declare success and who has the authority to pull the plug?

The campaign manager, the brand manager, the product line manager, the marketing director, the CMO...all have a stake in any program. Their reputations are all on the line. They might all be able to declare success and do their best to convince everyone of their invaluable part in the project. It's good to know how many people can and might take credit.

But there are many who might declare the project a failure and nip it in the bud. There are some in finance who might sound a sour note of uncertainty when the CEO is listening and put the kibosh on a whole landing page testing plan. There may be more than a few marketing executive types who could glance at a report or two and determine that the new social media efforts aren't paying off as well as hoped and funnel the funds back into direct mail where they belong.

A single board member who is too old to have teenagers living at home but too young to be Facebooking grandchildren might declare the whole thing a dalliance that should no longer be indulged.

The politics of measurement are rife with Machiavellian potential. Beware. Be on guard.

The best way to protect yourself is with that first-principal gem: a clear and concise definition of success. Without it, numbers are just numbers.

Remember to ask: Who has the right to declare success? And what are the criteria that will be used to determine success or failure?

That article was published in Computerworld on February 19, 2001. I had kept it for a decade and a week. Now, I can say thanks Ed, and goodbye.



Jim Sterne

Jim Sterne is an international consultant who focuses on measuring the value of the Web as a medium for creating and strengthening customer relationships. Sterne has written eight books on using the Internet for marketing, is the founding president and current chairman of the Digital Analytics Association and produces the eMetrics Summit and the Media Analytics Summit.

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