Outputs versus outcomes

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Written by Pam Hamilton on 9 December 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

Pam Hamilton provides one simple tool to boost your goal setting and teamwork.

The police have targets to measure their performance, and over the last decade have moved away from output-based targets to outcome-based ones. If police targets were based purely on how many arrests are made, they would be ignoring the fact that arresting people does not deal with the causes of crime.

Even though they still need to solve crimes and arrest criminals, the police are increasingly responsible for working alongside community groups to keep people healthy and happy so they don’t turn to crime in the first place.

In the corporate world, especially when we are under pressure, it can be easier to focus on the specific deliverables for the projects and teams we are working in, without considering or remembering why we are there in the first place. Often, we will agree a team objective, and then focus on the outputs alone in the journey to delivering the goal. 

What this leaves out a fundamental step in building the team spirit – the reason why we are doing the work in the first place. Like the police, there’s no point in arresting as many people as we can if we are not considering how to stop people from turning to crime.

Why have we become so focussed on outputs?

The focus on productivity, efficiency and data over the last decade means we risk reducing work to inputs and outputs. Whether it’s restructuring for cost-saving or stripping budgets back for efficiency, it is tempting to only measure the resource investment versus the commercial benefit that pops out the other side – like a sausage-making machine. 

Outcomes are more emotional and are therefore more motivating than outputs. They are also more difficult to measure

However, this input-output equation doesn’t explain why some teams are more successful than others, even if they have the same budgets, number of team members or even the same team members. It doesn’t explain how entrepreneurs can disrupt entire industries without the resources of a big corporate player.

The sausage factory approach ignores the importance of motivation, purpose and vision in making an average team a supercharged team. The difference between average and exceptional is in the outcomes that a team believes in.

We need to focus more on impact

Alex Thomson, one of the world’s most accomplished offshore sailors, talks about the importance of a ‘helicopter view’ when sailing: considering the perspective of the journey not just from skipper’s view in the cockpit, but by imagining it from the air, looking down on the boat and the journey.

Consider the helicopter view of your project. Instead of becoming fixated on the outputs (did we run to time, did we give all the updates we planned), let’s not forget the outcomes (did we help people to develop stronger relationships with each other, did we positively change our company culture, or did we improve our customer’s lives?).

 

Outcomes are more emotional and are therefore more motivating than outputs. They are also more difficult to measure on a spreadsheet and take longer to influence, and so are rarely picked up by a management consultancy brought in to do a cost-saving exercise.

Panicking and extreme workloads in a time of crisis add to the problem. It’s easier to focus on small deliverables like checking all your emails, ticking off milestones or sending updates to the monthly board meeting than stop and question whether we are delivering not just our objectives but our intentional outcomes.

This is why we need to consider a new goal setting framework for our projects, where we agree our objectives, but also align on the outcomes, rather than only the outputs.

The OOO framework

The OOO stands for outcome, objective and output. 

  • Outcome: what happens in people’s lives as a result of our work
  • Objective: the goal the team wants to achieve and by when
  • Output: a list of specific deliverables that will lead to us achieving our goal

How to use the OOO framework

  1. As a team, revisit your objectives. Don’t skip this step – you may find that, especially now, your objective needs to be reworded or updated. (refer to this article for more on rewording your objectives)
  2. Before you move to outputs, discuss what your project outcomes are. This can be as simple as discussing and agreeing the positive impact this project could make in people’s lives – whether the lives of your customers, your company, your department, or even in the lives of the people in your team. Or, you can go further and create a vision for your team (refer to this article for a visioning tool)
  3. Once you’re clear on objectives and outcomes, only then agree your outputs.
  4. Make sure to review all three every few months to remind each other what you are working to achieve

We all want our work to have a positive impact, but so many of us work without considering what our impact is beyond a team objective, and this stops us from delivering to our potential. Consider the outcomes of your work, with your team, and you will motivate each other to succeed, far beyond delivering outputs alone.

 

About the author

Pam Hamilton is a teamwork expert and MD of Paraffin 

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