Success Theater …

John Cutler
3 min readNov 20, 2016

I recently posted about Feature Factories ,which got me thinking about success theater.

Up and to the right …

There’s something about the phrase “success theater” that immediately hits home. You just know what it means.

It’s hearing you hit the quarterly goal, but knowing the corners you had to cut (and the people who will have to clean up the mess), listening to someone rattle off vanity metrics that say nothing, but claim everything, or being told you’re not a team player for having some doubts about a recent “win”. It’s all optics and smoke and mirrors, and the experience sucks. To anyone who takes their craft seriously, there’s no escaping that crappy feeling.

It’s also seductive. Building stuff that people use and pay for (for real) isn’t easy. It’s fraught with all kinds of setbacks and the reality is often unfriendly. We want desperately for things to work, and need a small dose of delusion just to keep going. But …

Success theater undermines the long-term potential of your team (and organization). It:

  • Dampens introspection
  • Fosters an environment unfriendly to healthy push-back
  • Gnaws at your most passionate team members (feels intellectually dishonest)
  • Insults the intelligence of your team
  • Sets you up for a rude awakening
  • Reduces safety and trust on teams (“I have to put on a smile, or else….”)
  • Locks you into keeping the illusion alive at all costs (the show must go on)
  • Puts optics ahead of your customers
  • Syphons your team’s valuable creative energy
  • Establishes a difficult to navigate dual reality
  • Deals in vanity metrics not actionable metrics
  • Makes it hard to filter out the “real” good news
  • Reduces the ability to detect weak signals
  • Discourages measuring what is really happening
  • Limits risk-taking and innovation
  • Leans on one group (or multiple groups) to deal with the reality

That’s bad! But what can we do about it?

  • Lead by example. Once reinforced by leadership, success theater is very difficult to combat
  • Share some challenging news. Talk about missteps
  • When you have real wins, celebrate them like crazy. Have fun when the wins are real
  • Talk about failure and learning regularly (and respectfully)
  • Ask your team what success looks like to them. Get them involved
  • Ask your team to come up with actionable (and meaningful) metrics
  • Invite them to pick about the current metrics / units of success
  • Acknowledge (never dismiss) team feedback, and explain your rationale for doing or not doing something about it
  • Teach all team members about your company’s business model and operating assumptions. Regularly revisit those assumptions
  • Explain why targets/goals are what they are, and why it matters
  • Make it safe for someone to say things like “I’m not seeing why that’s a win ….” or “I really feel like we’re cutting the wrong corners”
  • Compensate/reward on performances and outcomes that matter, and that don’t cause divisions in your team. Rewarding success theater sets a terrible example
  • If optics matter to the external world — they usually do — have frank discussions on why that is the case, and how external messaging cannot dictate the internal dialogue



John Cutler

Multiple hat-wearer. Prod dev nut. I love wrangling complex problems and answering the why with qual/quant data. @johncutlefish on Twitter.