Three meditations on wins

Leaders (and managers) are successful to the extent that their teams and peers notch wins. Former Intel CEO Andy Grove calls this the “output” of a manager, and wrote the book on it1.

Easier said than done! What is it for a lead to create wins (aka output)?

1. Choose games that are winnable

Only play games you can win.

  • Warren Buffett or the Beastie Boys (probably)

Our time is highly constrained. Saying “no” is an underrated and under-discussed leadership skill. Saying no on behalf of my team, peers, or organization, I’ve created focus on a (potentially) winning effort.

Some great reasons not to play a game2:

  • The opportunity, as presented, is not yet small enough in scope to notch a win in the time available to work the opportunity. Find a smaller win in the presented opportunity that will give you a hint as to the real potential of the bigger project.
  • The calendar time necessary to run the project or ongoing effort to completion (notch the win) is dominated by process, coordination, and bureaucracy. That is, try again when there is a way to realize the impact with less overhead/organizational drag.
  • There’s a gap between the desired/supposed outcome and the project(s) that could realize that outcome. The immediate win is to research/brainstorm/write your way to connecting outcome with action(s).

Pro-tip: provide feedback on not-yet-winnable games in the form of “I don’t yet know how to win that game, let’s start by fixing that”. No one likes pessimism, cynicism, or shutting down all the project ideas. That said, it’s fair to provide constructive feedback that will improve the idea or bring it closer to action/win-ability.

2. What counts as a win?

Once something is out in the world, it’s a win. Publishing an article, releasing a feature to your customers – those are definitely wins.

Getting something out of your team or head, that’s a sort of win. Rolling out a new process or tool is some kind of win. Worth sharing! But it doesn’t directly improve what customers are paying for, so focusing entirely on this kind of win doesn’t count.

Wins have to change your company’s world in some tangible way. The change need not be objective or quantitative; a subjective/qualitative survey is enough!

If what you’re recognizing as little wins doesn’t yield bigger wins, then it’s time to reflect on what you’re encouraging.

3. Avoid short-term thinking, build momentum with little wins, build big wins

A culture of thoughtfulness about outcomes, potential, impact, and trade-offs makes 1 and 2 happen.

Loud voices may try to convince you that un-winnable games have lots of promise. Urgent voices might tell you counting something as a win and moving on is the right move.

Moving the goal-line closer, so you can recognize a win, is expedient and productive, occasionally. Other times, moving the goal-line is self-defeating.

It is often difficult to stick with long-term projects. There is so much other stuff to work on, all of it intriguing. Other folks in the organization will want to know how much of “all of it” we could produce in the current and next quarters.

The challenge is to stay the course, believe in the purpose, and stack all those little wins, every week, until the big win takes shape. Tell your colleagues about the big win’s emergence…

In short

  1. Choosing what to work on (or not) is of crucial importance.
  2. Recognizing the right kinds of progress makes it easier to stack little wins on the way to big wins.
  3. Exercising the discipline to stack meaningful progress (wins) is the engine for generating big outcomes.
  1. High Output Management. See also, GitLab’s notes on the same.
  2. Would a whole post on indicators of losing/un-winnable games come off as too cynical?
Adam Keys @therealadam