“Success” vs. “Results”

We always seem to talk about success and results in tandem, as if they are intuitively tied, but whenever we do, it seems to be based on a limited understanding of success. If we have to “measure positive results” to call something successful, how do you decide on the success of something like building a community, or collaborating?

With social media, or collaboration, or innovation, we may never see success, because our view of success is too narrow. We’re looking for something that can be compared to traditional marketing, personal productivity, or process improvement – some number that shows us how much extra we made or saved. We keep trying to measure the difference between working alone and working together, between improving the old and creating the new, and we’re at a loss. This is because we keep trying to measure success according to an outdated and purely results-based model.

Consider Twitter

Or Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, the list goes on. The goal of social media is to be social: to find and engage with a community of like-minded individuals on a variety of topics that further your shared interests and goals. If the goal is reduced simply to “make friends”, then what do we call a success or a failure? The results argument says that if you have “friends”, “followers”, “subscribers”, etc. you are successful, and that the more you have, the more successful you are.

Consider a company with thousands of subscribers that use big money to buy followers: are they successful? How about compared to the person working alone who has 300 fully engaged followers who do everything they can to spread the message? The “results” would suggest the company is more successful, but what happens when the person or the company wants something from those followers? For instance, both are trying to increase engagement, so both ask a question on Twitter.

The company will probably only get a small percentage of their subscribers that actually participate. The person with 300 actively engaged followers gets 300 actively engaged participants. In terms of flat number of followers, the company wins. In terms of achieving the goal of engaged participants, the person wins. However, we usually measure response rates, click-throughs, and number of followers, because those can be compared on a balance sheet. This need to overly simplify results is risky, because when we are deciding if the project was a success or a failure, the answer changes depends on your measurement.

With collaboration, innovation, or community building projects, success or failure can’t be measured except in certain circumstances. Compared to their “old-school” counterparts, there is no measure. The success of a community only appears when they’re presented with an obstacle and overcome it because of the rapport they have built in times of ease. With innovation, success seems to happen overnight, because we ignore the failures and their “negative” results. And with collaboration, success seems impossible to measure or predict, but it’s easy to differentiate between the successes and failures.

If we reduce success to “positive results”, we create a constant uphill battle for ourselves. If we can’t measure our success, and success is based on measurement, we can never be successful. Rather than obsess about creating a way to measure collaboration results, I would argue instead for a more theoretical understanding of success as “the increased possibility of achieving your goal based on actions taken with that intention”. Any step you take that brings you closer to your goal, you accomplish something, so let’s call that success instead.

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