Redefining success

As we come to the close of another year and disturbingly another decade, I happened upon a brilliant podcast that awakened my introspective self from its post Christmas slumber. In it I heard parallels to lessons that I had learned in my career, as well as some fresh insights into how impactful the right mindset can be.

As many will be defining success for the next year and potentially the next decade, it seems a good time to reflect more deeply on what it means to be successful.

Success can’t be dictated

One of the key points that really struck me was;

You can dictate a win, you can’t dictate success!

This is something that I have been coming to terms with over the last number of years. It is a core concept for those in a position of leadership to understand, yet it seems so counterintuitive at times. You were put into a position of leadership to tell people how to do the right things, but shouldn’t tell them how to do things! I didn’t really grasp this and regularly fell into the trap of arguing with people, to prove to them, that mine was the right way to do it. This was often exhausting as they opposed the change and I spent much of my time trying to counter their arguments, so they would just follow my dictates and get to the “right” place.

Since then I have learned, like Valorie, that teams don’t like being talked down to, they don’t like being belittled. They want to be built up, trusted and heard. Who knew!? Thankfully this is not something I had to learn in a two hour beat down but rather something that came up through regular 1:1’s with my manager. We discussed the importance being able to influence others, in positive ways, trying and adapting different approaches. In a recent year-end review it was mentioned that I had become less forceful in instituting changes and tried to bring more people along for the journey with me. This came as a pleasant surprise as, to be honest, I often forget to do this. It is not an easy practice and can take significantly more time to get something done. It can be tempting to go back to old habits, of dictating how to do things.

Where I have noticed the biggest change with this approach is in explaining to people why we should do something. I generally felt this was unnecessary. It is my job to try and improve things, why should I waste the energy to explain why this will make things better, when the energy would be better spent explaining how to technically implement it. I only need to dictate how to do it, everything else is a distraction. Trust me!

As I started to focus more on why we should be doing things, I found that many people did not share the same idea of success as I did. They resisted the changes, not because they found technical fault with the implementation but because they felt the change would interfere with them winning. We were arguing over completely different things. When I explained how the changes could enable us both to succeed, in our own context and that in the long term they could win more by doing things differently, the objections fell away.

Focus on Experience

Talking about the car ride home after a football game, made me immediately think of how we run retrospectives. “Did we win the Sprint?”, “How many Story Points did we score?”, “Did we get an A in the Sprint Demo?”. These are standard retrospective questions and they have their use. We need to be objective in measuring improvements. As a team we need to deliver outcomes, so the company stays in business. But that does not necessarily mean that we are being successful.

We can meet and sometimes even beat out targets. We deliver everything we set out to and more! However, in doing so the team can suffer burnout. They can be run ragged trying to achieve all the objectives set for the iteration, many times set by themselves. When unrealistic deadlines are continually put on the team and they keep meeting them, they will just get more work. There can be an all too real culture of - No good deed goes unpunished! It is too convenient to think; “This is a team of winners, lets give them more work to win at.” Because winning is fun and comes with many rewards, the team naturally says “yes” to more work. When this happens it is too easy for the team to become broken and damaged.

Part of the remedy to this is to ask the other questions; “What did you learn this Sprint?”, “Did you help a teammate?”, “Did you figure out how to have fun working really hard?”. The last of these is really important, one we should be asking ourselves regularly. Work can be incredibly monotonous, we do the same crap we have been doing for weeks, with little sign of change. If someone can share some aspect of their day, or week, that was fun for them, where they learned something new, then the team can start to see how to incorporate that into future iterations and break some of the monotony. It can help slow the descent into burnout by focusing on whether the team is having a good experience or not.

This is where the “What went well” part of the retrospective is so underappreciated. I regularly remind people that they should really dig deep for this part, as it is so easily forgotten. We want to get to all the problem areas, so that we can fix them, because that is what we do, we solve problems. We win! In doing so, we routinely dismiss what we have accomplished. It’s just boasting or ego stroking, right? It’s not! It’s a gauge of how successful we are. It’s a checkpoint that we doing things that are good for our long term success, because we can enumerate them. In many retrospectives people can not name a single thing that is going well, other than “We got all our work done”. In contrast they can list 20 things that need to be improved. What does that say about our success?

It says we are just trying to win. We want to be the best at Sprinting; we need to optimise, improve, adapt. Nothing is good enough, there are only things to improve. If we redefine success, maybe things are good enough, maybe we just need to slow down, take a step back, maintain consistency for a period and see that we are succeeding.


The last thing I took away from this is not something new, but was certainly framed in a very hard hitting way. When you build trust with people and listen to them, they will tell you the most unlikely things.

Again this can be brought back to the retrospective ceremony, though it can also be applied to a wide range of situations. In retrospectives, we can ask a simple question: Do we give ourselves enough time to actually sit and listen to one another, or do we just rush through the ceremony to tick the box? Are we allowing teammates to share potentially groundbreaking insights or concerns that could reshape how we achieve success?

While I would hope never to hear anything as dramatic as what was said in Valories story, there are often elephants in the room that need to be addressed. Things that once vocalised, acknowledged and actioned, can help a team perform better. They can be as simple as going back to the first point; someone is being a dictator and they need to change. It can also go to more extremes, such as, we’re not willing to take risks and make a mistake, as we are fearful of the next round of layoffs. This can be crippling to a team, despite the fact it may have zero grounding in reality; the company could be doing remarkably well and there are no layoffs on the horizon.

However the only way to explain that to the team, is to first identify that something is bothering them. As mentioned, the way to do that is deceptively simple, be still and listen. Open the door for people to talk to you and just listen to what they have to say.

We have started a wonderful new practice at work, a skip-level meeting with management, where our managers manager comes to our weekly meeting and we get carte blanche to ask questions. This is a great gesture of trust, that we can find information that we may feel is out of our reach on a regular basis. It can also help senior management share their vision of success to their wider organisation.

Lastly, in learning to listen, practices like mindfulness can be incredibly useful. At their core, they teach us to be comfortable sitting in silence with our own thoughts, listening. If our mind is always on winning; that a conversation must be won by some measure, then should an opportunity arise to have one of these important conversations, we may not be able to have it. While I have written about the need for productive meetings, that have clear outcomes, one of the ideals behind that is to make time for more important things. Having the time to listen to someone who wants to talk, without knowing the end goal, should top that list.

Ensure you have strong pillars

All of this goes to the central pillars of high functioning teams, be it in sport, engineering or any walk of life. Teams need a foundation of trust, both to have it in their leadership and to be shown it by their leadership.

Patience is crucial to providing the necessary time to build that trust and to maintain it, understanding that there will be good days and bad.

Respectful honesty ensures that teams trust that they will be told the truth, regardless of whether they will like it or not and that they can respond in kind.

Accountability needs to be given to people, so they can feel trusted and allowed to make their own decisions and occasionally their own mistakes.

When all of these are put in place and teams allowed to define what success means for them, they will do far more than just win the next project, release or quarter. They will become fully rounded, empowered individuals, that will achieve success in all that they do. If done really well, they will also derive joy in doing so.

Happy New Year!




Multidimensional Engineer working in HPE with an interest in many things.

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Alan Duggan

Alan Duggan

Multidimensional Engineer working in HPE with an interest in many things.

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