The Triangle: Lame Musical Instrument, Amazing Productivity Tool

Growing up, one of the ‘benefits’ of having a Dad who worked in the corporate world was the models he would come home with. No, I haven’t had dinner with Heidi Klum or any one of her colleagues, I’m talking about the various management/learning/empowerment models that Dad would pick up in his days at one of Australia’s big four banks, usually given to him by some American Consulting firm who found novel ways to simplify complex business issues.

One of the popular, but retrospectively hilarious ones in my household was ‘four quadrant leadership’, essentially a way for your team (or family in this case) to understand what type of instructions you were giving them. Crash course for you as follows:

  • Quadrant 1 – I decide
  • Quadrant 2 – We’ll discuss and I’ll decide
  • Quadrant 3 – We’ll discuss and we’ll decide
  • Quadrant 4 – You decide, and call me if you need assistance.

You may be able to see where this is going.

“Michael, go to bed. Quadrant 1”

“You want to go to that same friend’s house for the fourth day in a row? Quadrant 2”

As a kid, it’s fair to say Dad and I didn’t spend much time in Quadrant 3 and 4.

But there was another model that is burnt into my brain, possibly for all the wrong reasons. And like many of the models that Dad would draw on a serviette at the dinner table, this one had a suitably corny name “The Success Triangle”.

You can check it out for yourself below (in fact, I even got the great man himself to draw one for you).

To illustrate the triangle in action, let me give you an example of a typical scenario where the triangle was used when I was a young warthog.

Dinner is cooked and on the table and on this particular Tuesday night, Michael stares down at his food for most of the meal and eats it slower than usual.

Mum: “Michael, you’re a bit quiet, are you ok?”

Michael: “I’m fine”

Dad: “If something’s wrong, you know you can tell us, right?”

Michael bursts into tears

Michael: “I’m really *sob* bad at *sob* cricket *sob* and the kids have started calling me “Duck” *sob sob sob*

Note to reader: this actually happened

Dad: “C’mon mate, sit next to me, let’s ‘success triangle’ this one”

Michael cries louder because he doesn’t want to sit through the success triangle again. Drama ensues.

So after I settled down and realised that this triangle wasn’t going anywhere, what would typically follow was a dissection of my issue. “Do you want to get good at cricket mate?” Tick. “Well, you’re motivated. Great. Then we either have a clarity or capability issue. Has anyone ever taught you how to bat or bowl properly?” Cross. “Do you have a few steps you can follow to get better at cricket?”. Cross.

“Right, well you need some more clarity and capability. I think we need to send you for a few cricket lessons”.

After a few sessions at a Sunday cricket camp, I soon discovered that whilst my clarity and capability were sharpening, it turns out my motivation was the real roadblock. Needless to say my cricketing experience since then has largely been as a spectator.

So why I am telling you this more or less banal story?

Well, I had a revelation a few years ago as I worked with various businesses to get stuff done. The Success Triangle actually works. Really well.

Let’s put you in the picture now.

I want you to look at your to-do list right now and find for me the task that if completed, would be really valuable to you, your clients/customers or your team, but for some reason has been sitting on there for way too long. That task that every week when you spot it you go “Ah, that’s right, I still haven’t started on that”. To go a little Eisenhower on you, perhaps this is a task that’s ‘Important, but not urgent’.

What tends to happen in this scenario is that we develop a comfortably numb relationship with the task. We know it’s there, it kind of annoys us, but as the weeks go on, our chances of prioritising it that week diminish, despite its inherent value.

And now my challenge to you; it’s September in Australia so time for a bit of Spring cleaning.

I want you to unstuck this task. Momentum often doesn’t arrive, we need to physically create it, then it carries us along.

I want you to do whatever it takes in the next 7 days to get your initial momentum towards this task.

Let’s explore how you may be able to do this.


This is where most tasks come to die. Clarity on the ‘how’ is super valuable and totally underrated. As a starting point, I suggest running your task through the clarity filter first:

  • Work out what the components of your challenge are and break this task into smaller ones which are easier to action. How do you eat an elephant? (impossible I hear you say!). The answer, of course, is one bite at a time.
  • If you can’t work out what the step by steps are, bring in someone else who can help bring you that clarity. There are some people (one or more of whom I suspect you speak with daily) who eat processes for breakfast.


Have you realised you just can’t do the task with your current resources? The solution to this one isn’t quite as simple, as ‘capability’ has a lot of moving parts (time, people, knowledge, systems). But to kick things off, consider whether you need to:

  • Educate yourself more. A great first step to getting any task done.
  • Set aside some distraction-free time to make a dent in this. Two observations here. 1) When your concentration is broken, it takes 20 minutes to get back into the zone and 2) You’ll be amazed at how much you can get done in 25 uninterrupted minutes. Set aside a couple of hours this week or next, completely immersed in the task, and see how far you can get.
  • If you don’t have the time to do this, surely someone else inside your team, family or circle does. Maybe it’s time to ‘import some time’ from somewhere else? What’s difficult for us is simple for someone else. The missing piece of your plan might just be someone else who revels in the task that you’re clearly not revelling in. When you outsource, you don’t just outsource the task, you also outsource the energy associated with that task. And in many ways, the energy you will get back by finding someone else to take this one off your plate is reward in and of itself, not to mention this important task actually getting completed.


And if you’re just looking at this task and not feeling excited whatsoever to get it done, that’s ok! Try a few of these things:

  • It’s easy to get stuck in the minutia of executing on a task without remembering the real benefit of doing it. So start with why you’re doing the task in the first place. Usually this will be to help yourself or someone else; basically to create something of value, that will solve a problem and make a legitimate difference to someone or multiple people. Sometimes this simple shift in mindset is enough to get you ‘back on the horse’.
  • And if you are taking into account the big picture and it’s still not floating your boat, don’t be afraid to let go, whether that means taking it off your list or passing it onto someone else. Being motivated to do something usually means we do it quicker and better, with more creativity along the way as we feel a sense of ‘flow’. Perhaps someone else is better placed to immerse themselves in this task which excites the hell out of them.

Your focus is your superpower and what you focus on today will most likely make a fundamental difference to your future. This is also true for what you actively choose not to focus on.

Holding tasks in ‘no man’s land’, with a small, uncomfortable focus is doing nobody any favours (especially yourself). So find out why you’re not choosing certain tasks and build a ritual for constantly asking the success triangle questions of your to-do list. Move forward, rinse and repeat. Whether you need a regular diary appointment with yourself or a post-it note on your computer monitor, unstucking your to-do list needs to become part of your ‘business as usual’.

Does your chosen task need more clarity, capability or motivation?

Quadrant 4 😉


Michael Back, Founder of Human to Human