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A simple mindset shift can unlock success

Unlock Success: Simple Mindset Shift

From Tasks to Triumphs, Cultivating an Achievement-Oriented Culture

     Sure, it’s semantic. And sometimes not even meant to mislead. But, that slight word realignment is a key to achievement and effectiveness. Observing and identifying this (predominantly cultural) distinction gives away why an individual, team, and organization is or is not successful.

A simple mindset shift can unlock success
Image (c)

     Let’s explore it in three steps.

  1. Parse the distinction.
  2. Explore the meanings.
  3. Show how to make this one, minor change to create a cloud of action, achievement, and effectiveness around yourself as leader.


          The semantics at play come down to the intent, the subject, and the object of the thought. These two sentences do represent variation on a thought. We internalize thoughts exactly. Even if, as in this case, they colloquially have essentially the same meaning. This is an important factor.

     We did <something>.1 We should like this sentence: it is active and explicit. There is, <something> defined, which we did. It is subject-centric: about us… doing something. On the other hand, it does not even imply that the <something> is meaningful, let alone complete. Meaningful is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Complete is not. In the context of progress and achievement, complete generally refers to self-evident accomplishment of progress—not just work. Completion, never mind success, is certainly material.

     Compare that with the alternative: We got <something> done. It is less emphatic, no doubt, the focus being on <something> being complete. Though active, this sentence is more object- than subject-centric. Some might argue this is as bad as the passive-voice version (“<Something> was done.”) so frowned upon by editors. But, given thoughts are how we speak to ourselves, it is qualitatively better. We’re saying (to ourselves) that we completed something. Implicitly that something is material.2

Progress requires materiality, not just work

     Progress, not just work, has to be our measure of materiality. To clarify: a project or activity comprises action(s). Building a doghouse means framing, cutting, assembling, and finishing until the doghouse is habitable. The breakdown is not important. The fact that each element represents a definite, severable “part” of the larger activity is important.

     Project management discipline suggests breaking down a project iteratively until only work tasks remain, even though some tasks achieve near nothing on their own. Only when they and related tasks complete some project component are they justifiably considered progress. Doing “check box” activities may represent a lot of work. But it’s just work, not progress, until they collectively reach a qualitative—often “stand-alone”—achievement (i.e., any further work is done to the completed component as a whole). Progress, by this definition, is completion of a component, not merely completing a task.

Meanings and Mindset

     Subject v. object orientation is key. Achievement is meaningless without the object. In this case, that is the <something> either done or on which progress toward being done is made. Focusing on the subject inhibits attention to accomplishment. Admittedly, subject focus is appropriate and effective for a performance review, when the goal is to assess and attribute credit for work and achievement. In such moments, obviously you’ll go beyond the job being done, to clearly focus on who did it.

     Shifting internal self-talk from subject to object critically reorients how team members perceive their own and others’ effectiveness right down to whether achievement—or mere action—is the dominant purpose.

     For an accomplishment mindset, we want attention on the goal and its achievement. At worst, we may not even care about the means, assuming they are established and acceptable (morally and legally). This is hard for some to fathom. Those people tend to be concerned with the means and the specific actions (aka, process junkie).3

     Ultimately, the optimal attitude is that the job is not done until it is finished. (Silly to say, but surprisingly necessary.) Obviously, many things will be incomplete for a time over a (long) project. During those times, an unsettled inner tension serves to keep attention appropriately calibrated. (Something is amiss or incomplete. The work is being done but the job is not finished.)

     For people focused on their action (work), not their accomplishments, the “journey is its own reward.” The work stands on its own. That it may be part of something larger and more important is secondary. Obviously, in this state, it would be easy to perceive task completion as accomplishment. This tends to be characteristic of neophytes.4

     Is this wrong? (Is the journey not the reward?) I suspect that depends on the scale used to judge. By Taoist moral philosophy, probably. To a hobbyist, it might defeat the very point of the distraction, but you never know about motivations. In practice, at any level in any endeavor, especially in an organization dedicated to accomplishing goals, it is absolutely wrong.

     The point of practice­—the journey, as it were—is to perform the activity. In the game (the competition), however, merely performing the activity is—albeit necessary—ultimately insufficient. Accomplishing the objective—winning—is the point.5

     For an organization to be achievement-oriented, its people must be object-oriented in their work. Note, I did not say “achievement” oriented. For the majority of work life and job performance, achievement vastly overstates the case and, frankly, diminishes the value of the word. (“My achievement today is that I read the memo,” hardly rises to the level expected of such a word.) On the other hand, being object-oriented—identifying objectives and accomplishing them—is not. Perhaps on a given day, for a given purpose, reading that memo is, in fact, a necessary if not essential objective.6

     I recognize the subjectivity in my proposal may seem nuance-laden and flabby. Any looseness is in classifying what objects/objectives constitute achievement and which do not. As noted earlier, a rough approach might be to perceive projects and operations as components and wholes, iterating ever more finely until the identified “whole” component is effectively just work. This correlates with project management methods. Alternatively, one could call a minor “deliverable” an accomplishment and a major one an achievement. It really doesn’t matter, so long as it is reasonable, consistent, and reproducible by workers.

Locking into the Culture

     This being a leadership-directed article specific to transformation and change, I can hardly ignore organizational culture. I think the default for any organization with a meaningful purpose beyond finding the truth or keeping the incarcerated occupied must be achievement-orientation. It hardly merits prosecuting that argument again here. Human Resources, at a minimum, ought to be concerned with and propagating an achievement-oriented organizational culture. For that, my meagre contribution is unnecessary.

     Irrespective of the kind of organization, it has a purpose and objectives, and probably a loose desire to achieve them. Organizations, being the sum of many individual members and contributors, need most of those individuals to be of uniform purpose and the same mind. Getting them to the same purpose and path is relatively straight-forward: that’s what visions, missions, and plans are for.

     Getting them to be of the same mind—particularly an achievement mindset—is less easy, especially if the organization is not devoted to accomplishment and achievement. Assuming it is not, and that achieving that culture is too long in coming to help you, it is possible to foster a cloud of accomplishment and achievement around yourself.

Value of having your own culture of achievement

     This essay is not about changing the organizational culture generally—if that’s required. It’s about creating a culture specifically around you and the initiatives you lead, be they operations or projects.

     We all know of leaders that—even in the midst of dysfunction—are paragons of progress: the “get-it-done” type. Even if the culture is not on their side, their teams still achieve.

     You can too. You can create an achievement-oriented enclave. If you are successful, not only will team members soon reflect that, others will want to join. Eventually everyone knows “things are different here.” Let’s have a look at how.

How to make a cloud of achievement around you

     Ideally the entire organization would rally to sustain a culture of achievement. In the absence of that—or even just to augment bigger efforts, there are things you can do within the locus of your control. This applies to both employees that report to you and to “dotted line” team members working on your projects.

     You have to do three things. There are more if you’re up to it, but, within your domain, doing and following up assiduously on these things, will net many benefits. If you’re lucky, you’ll be the organization’s vanguard.7

     The structures have to be conducive to achievement and performance. Only then will conduct readily support a goal. Even for your own domain, set up the following:

  • Develop and use Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Diligently track progress. There is an art to setting, measuring, and using metrics for which many primers are available.
  • Use behavioral contracts outlining specific behaviors, goals, and rewards. Again, review regularly for progress and adjustment. (See below.)
  • Informally review performance to sustain achievement focus and progress. Incorporate this into the formal review process for direct reports.

     As much as stating achievement goals, creating structures, including policies, to support and reinforce desired behaviors is fundamental. Behaviours are addressable levers and “tripwires” that reliably indicate an achievement mindset. Behaviours, not goals, are the building blocks of performance.

     Encourage a culture around you where mistakes are learning opportunities—within reason.8 But make it meaningful: empower people with autonomous, delegated responsibility (and accountability!) to make decisions.

     Offer training for skills that lead to desired behaviors (goal-setting, time management, and resilience) and achievement. At worst, conduct workshops to educate employees on the importance of specific behaviors and integrating them into daily routine. For example: setting personal and professional SMART goals.

     Clearly define and communicate both specific goals and expected behaviors. Optimally these are aligned to the organization’s overall goals and understood by all employees. Goals are obvious. Include behaviours because, to repeat, they are (a) the conditions of and constraints on achievement and (b) tripwires that make it more likely to lock-in achievement orientation.9 Your communications should include:

  • Context—the bigger picture—and your team’s contribution so it harmonizes with the organization’s Vision and Mission. Use this to avoid dissonance from flaring.
  • SMART goals that are effective and trackable. Set Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound goals.
  • Open and honest discussion of progress and performance. There’s no need to be abrasive, but much need to not be misinterpreted.

     Immediately reward displays of desired behaviors in small ways (verbal praise, written recognition) and large (small bonuses). For instance, catch people “Doing it Right” and use spot rewards for immediate recognition.10

     Use regular, brief one-on-one feedback sessions or structured group sessions to provide constructive feedback, reinforce positive behaviors, and guide improvement. Remember to focus first on achievement; second on achievement-oriented behaviour.

Summary: Be an independent state of achievement

     Get something done. Foster a localized culture of achievement around yourself. Do it and it’s likely your teams will get things done instead of just doing things.

     Good luck.

     Institute X is a transformation leadership consultancy and transformation/change leader coaching firm. One of its online presences is The Change Playbook. Be sure to check out the abundance of practical and pragmatic guidance for all aspects of making change happen. Subscribe to be notified of new, fresh content.


  1. This speaks to culture, hence the plural, we; though the singular, I, fits as well. ↩︎
  2. Simplicity means nuance hits the cutting room floor. We could reduce the <something> to the work item of a check box, not to something material. The sentences are then effectively identical. The finer point, however, remains intact: subject v. object-orientation. And that’s not nothing. ↩︎
  3. It is smart to follow process. The distinction I draw is between the process as a function of achievement and as activity for its own sake. Once again, this is about orientation. ↩︎
  4. Think of the capsule story: “It was a beautiful operation. I was perfect.” “And the patient?” “Oh, he died on the table.” ↩︎
  5. There is hardly space to delve into player psychology, but it’s worth noting a curious dichotomy. During play—practice and competition, the player must be subject micro-focused. (e.g., “Just hit the ball like you always do.”). Outside of play, focus is more object-oriented (e.g., “I won the Open.”). ↩︎
  6. But is still hardly an accomplishment—unless the memo is in a foreign language. ↩︎
  7. If you’re darkly lucky, the organization’s immune system will surround and extinguish your efforts. You will have to change or leave. In time you’ll recognize that may be best. ↩︎
  8. Repeat mistakes revealing no effective learning are different. They must be dealt with clearly and definitively, though fairly. ↩︎
  9. Conduct a detailed analysis to identify specific behaviors that contribute to the achievement and success you seek. Maybe it’s as simple as punctuality, or deeper like proactive problem-solving, collaboration, meeting deadlines, and innovation. ↩︎
  10. Encourage non-direct report team members’ formal managers to use similar reinforcement. Just make sure their reinforcements are consistent with your own. ↩︎
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