Outcomes Over Outputs

When you plan an event, what are you more concerned about?  The outputs or the outcomes?  At face value, these may seem to be the same thing, but are they?

Think about a soccer team involved a soccer match.  The outcome the team desires is to win the match (although if your Chelsea and your playing away it may be to draw the match).  In order to do that, the team needs to score goals  – that is its output.  Outputs lead to outcomes but in of themselves are not outcomes.  I think its very important to distinguish between the two.  Why?  Because chasing outputs takes our eye off the outcomes we desire.

For the purpose of this post, outcome is defined as “the end result“.  It could also be seen to be the goal or the difference that will be made.   Output on the other hand is the “material produced or yield“. From the definition alone, it follows to reason that outputs are not outcomes. A team can score 5 goals (output) and still lose the game (outcome) because the opposition scored 6 goals.  A delivery team can release software (output) and the customer be disappointed (outcome) because it doesn’t do what was expected.  A messaging team can move e-mail to the cloud (output) and users may not be able to access their e-mail (outcome).

Our analytical way of viewing the world would have us focus on outputs.  We like to break things down into its component parts and specify them in a neat and tidy way.  Outputs are easier to measure.  I was involved for over a decade in the design and architecture of a relatively large Supply Chain solution and have practically spent most of career (till date) designing and building platforms.  I’ve also spent a lot of time on teams where we developed processes to help manage our knowledge work organization and have experienced that process design is often done through the lens of the analytic mindset.  Remember, this is how we are taught in school.  It’s our default way of learning.  We devise solutions via decomposition.   Even though conversations start with outcomes in mind, the process eventually gravitates towards outputs.  Think of all the processes in your organization. Aren’t they by and large outputs trying to ensure certain outcomes?

Focusing on outputs instead of outcomes can prevent us from making the necessary adjustments required by our desired outcomes.  Outputs becomes proxy variables for outcomes.  What happens if you go to the gym every day (output) but don’t weigh yourself (for example) to see if you’re actually losing weight (outcome)?

Even in the wonderful world of Lean and Agile we fall in love with practices (outputs) and forget that the goal is to deliver software that delights the people that use it (outcome). Organizations fall in love with productivity (output) metrics and pay little or no attention to effectivity (outcome) metrics. It is critical to take time to reflect on how an organization is tracking towards its stated outcomes. Unfortunately many organizations spend more time auditing output compliance than they do outcome attainment.

I am not suggesting that outputs are bad and that we trash them.  Rather I am reminding us that what we often truly care about is an outcome.   We should value outcomes over outputs.  Our work should guided by the outcomes we seek.  Our teams should have a clear understanding of these outcomes.  As we assess our progress towards our outcomes, we should change our outputs to help us get there.



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