Despite its critical importance, most teams are not in agreement around the foundational question: What does success look like in X years? The challenge lies in developing a clear collective understanding of what winning as a team looks like and then aligning efforts, resources, and strategies toward these common goals.

Hence, in this issue of Howe’s Now Monthly, Harvard Business Review authors offer guidance on how to prepare for and lead a success-defining discussion with your team*.


Ask the champagne question.

Here’s the champagne question: At the end of 2024, if we were drinking champagne on New Year’s Eve because our organization just completed an outstanding year, what would have been accomplished?

What would we toast to as indicators of success?

With 2023 just underway, it’s time to engage your team in defining what champagne-popping success looks like this year and in the future. Here’s how to prepare for and lead this success-defining discussion with your team.


Before talking to the team, ask the champagne question individually.

Begin by asking each team member to respond to the champagne question individually, either through an interview or a survey.

Associating success with a celebratory event like popping champagne on New Year’s Eve evokes a more valid, sometimes emotional response. It moves people away from what’s in the budget (or the compensation system) and leads to more genuine, creative, and comprehensive thinking about goals and achievements. By gathering both qualitative and quantitative indicators, the conversation that follows can lead to a more specific set of aspirations.


 Analyze the individual responses.

Before discussing the results with the team, group the individual responses into broad themes like growth in service population, hiring and retention, expansion of key programs, innovation, and culture.

Theme identification allows for commonalities and misalignments to be more easily identified in advance.

Next, prepare for the team conversation by noting these three pitfalls:

  1. Your team could have the same goals but different interpretations of those goals. For example, growth in service population could mean we aim to double or we want to grow by 10%. Therefore, clarify the goal.
  2. Your team could have the same goals but different targets for reaching those goals. For instance, expansion of key programs could mean increasing programs that target outreach populations or increase programs for residential students. Be sure you’re focusing on the same targets.
  3. Your team could have completely different goals. If you identified several different goals, then determine priorities for your organization and align the goals accordingly.


Share results with your team.

Aligning the team requires careful thinking about the process in the meeting, especially if answers show widely varying perspectives across the team.

Level set the group.

Even seasoned team members may not have a consistent understanding of the organization’s trajectory. At the conversations’ starting point, make sure everyone is up-to-speed on all relevant data.


Review the champagne question responses together.

Highlight similarities and differences within the themes you established earlier. Explore where similar answers have different targets, where responses may have different underlying meanings, and where views diverge. This naturally leads to a discussion of tradeoffs.


Develop options for what success looks likes.

Divide the group into smaller teams of two to five members. Give them about 20 minutes to discuss and address two key questions:

What does winning look like for us? These should be 3–5 concise, descriptive, goal-oriented statements.

What specific measure(s) and target(s) would you suggest?

Essentially, the small groups are each coming up with a new, collective “revised and improved” answer to the champagne question. Have each breakout team share their ideas with the rest of the group. Appoint a facilitator to consolidate these and manage the group discussion.


Set measures and targets.

Reviewing the collective responses from the breakout exercise often reveals a complex and sometimes cluttered picture, highlighting the need for further refinement and prioritization.

Start with the measures or categories. Guide the full team to narrow down their choices by asking, “Which 3–5 measures are most critical for defining what winning looks like in the next X years?”

Once the measures of success are determined, the discussion around targets — the quantified outcomes — naturally follows. How will we objectively know that we’ve achieved our goals? What should the target numbers be? Even if the group can’t come to full consensus in this first conversation, by the end of the meeting the range of possible outcomes will certainly have narrowed significantly.


Agree on next steps.

At the end of this conversation, your team will be better aligned on what constitutes success, although further work will likely be needed to refine the collective answer. A measure or two may still require further investigation, or targets may need to be established and validated. At the end of the meeting, assign individuals to fill these gaps and bring recommendations back to the team for a subsequent discussion to finalize the team’s view of success.

Help your team define success