Output vs Outcome

TLDR; Working hard and working smart are not the same things. The first ensures a lot of work is done, the second – moves you forward to the desired destination. Focus on what really matters can significantly boost individual/team/company effectiveness.

Last week I’ve read this post from The ReadMe Project about effective communication which resonated with me. The gist is that truly effective communication leads to the desired outcome rather than desired output. I think this rule could and should be applied to many other things as well: the code we write, the decisions we make, the projects we lead, the products we create, the actions or inactions we make, and so on.

The key difference between the two to my understanding is the output designates the artifact of the work like feature, document, message, post, etc, while the outcome defines the desired impact you want to achieve like improved user experience, change in the audience behavior, metric growth and so on. That’s why the outcome is what really matters and not the output.

I’m not saying the output is not important; on the contrary, I believe the output is very important. However, most of the time the outcome can be achieved in several different ways but often people focus on the output they planned to create and forget about the desired outcome, or don’t think about it at all. So far I’ve seen two very common patterns: doing something without thinking about the outcome and losing the focus on the outcome in the process. 

Not thinking about the outcome

This is usually caused by the too-narrow thinking which might have many various reasons underneath it ranging from not enough experience to dangerous not my problem mentality. In simple cases, the situation could be improved by clarifying the context for the activity, organizing learning or mentorship, or providing feedback. In complex cases, a more thorough investigation is needed to find the root of the problem and work with it.

Losing focus in the process

This applies to longer activities like projects, roadmaps, etc. Before the kick-off, at the planning phase, it’s quite common to keep the final purpose in mind to define what output is required to achieve the project goals. However, in the execution phase, that sense of initial purpose vanishes very soon and, if completely lost, can often lead to irrational or even wrong decisions. 

There are two key reasons for this: different levels of thinking and different levels of involvement from people between planning and execution phases. The planning phase assumes strategic thinking and deeper involvement from leadership (explicit or implicit), while the execution phase requires tactical thinking and deeper involvement from the implementation team.

To maintain the focus on outcome and make it part of the team or organization culture there are a few simple things needed:

  1. Create context for people operating on the tactical level. Make sure they understand the desired outcome and indicators of success. Worth mentioning is that the outcome is more important than output.
  2. Make the outcome a part of the progress tracking. First of all, it’s important to track the progress of the longer initiatives, so if you don’t do this yet it’s time to think about it. Second, make sure the desired outcome is part of the tracking progress, either via metrics or as a reminder of what you’re trying to achieve in the end.
  3. Reiterate the final goal/mission regularly to refresh it in people minds.

Although things above look simple, doing them consistently is tough, but only consistency will be able to build a new habit with time.

Examples

Output thinking

We should ship a new payment method X by the end of the month.

Outcome thinking

We help merchants and shoppers in Europe to sell and buy with their favorite payment method by adding a new payment method X to our product.

I need to create a weekly/monthly/quarterly report for my manager.

I’m providing the summary to my manager so they can do their work more effectively.

I need to gather feedback from peers and stakeholders.

I’m trying to make a better decision by incorporating the knowledge, experience, and unique perspective of my peers and stakeholders.

Validation

How do I know if somebody, including myself, is focused on the outcome over output? One of the best ways to check this is a five whys technique. Although the technique is originally intended to get to the root of the problem in this case it helps to see if you sense the root of intention:

  1. What am I doing at the moment and what should be the result of the activity? => Output.
  2. Why this result is important? => Outcome 1.
  3. Why outcome 1 is important? => Outcome 2.
  4. Why …

Ideally, after a few iterations, you should see the movement towards the mission statement (personal, team, or company). If it’s not happening, that it’s a good signal to step back and rethink if the task or even the whole project is still relevant, but that’s another story.


That’s it, I encourage you to raise your awareness about the outcomes you’re trying to achieve as it’s what really matters in the end.

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