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Why great managers focus on outcomes, not output

Brittany Berger 8 min read
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Does your to-do list today give you a full picture of the scope of your job? Does it accurately portray the responsibilities you hold and the impact you have—both on your team and your organization at large?

Probably not, and that’s okay.

Your work is more than your to-do list. And so is your team’s.

But are you treating them like to-do lists or people?

If you’re following a lot of the basic advice out there about managing and delegating to a team, you might be focusing on output over outcomes. Meaning, that advice often focuses on managing activities, tasks, and to-dos. Single actions like completing a report or designing a draft.

And while that’s definitely important, and a great place to start delegating, it’s definitely not the place to end your efforts.

Eventually, as a leader you want to move past focusing on output only, to managing outcomes and decisions as well. Let’s talk about how you can do that.

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The difference between output and outcomes

So, what’s the difference between these two very similar terms anyway, and how does that impact the way you manage your team?

In short, outputs are the “what,” the actions and activities you do, where outcomes are the “why,” the reason you do those activities. As leadership consultant Ashley Cox describes it, “I see outputs as the hard numbers, data, and metrics of doing business, while outcomes are the intangible results and human aspects.”

Outcomes will encompass the greater impact your team has on your company, customers, and mission. The results tied to why your company or department exists. In other words, outcomes are a pretty big deal.

But they’d never happen without output.

For example, customer relationships are crucial in lots of ecommerce and retail businesses that rely on repeat customers.

The day-to-day output of that company’s marketing team is things like advertising graphics, email copy, and other deliverables or pieces of collateral. It’s not necessarily connected to the company’s mission of creating relationships. But managed and completed well, the outcome of that output is a marketing campaign that creates a new number of customer relationships and sales.

With both terms, you’re looking at the same picture from different distances. Outcomes are the big picture, zoomed out view where output is the close-up view that lets you see the individual pixels or paint strokes, the components that make up the whole.

Why you should manage outcomes in addition to outputs

Good leaders manage their team’s output, but great ones connect it to desired outcomes as well.

Essentially, introducing outcomes to your management can help provide direction, motivation, and clarity for your team. This all works together to improve both team satisfaction and productivity in a wonderful win/win scenario.

Purely delegating output and handing off tasks is a disconnected way to work with your team, both interpersonally and strategically.

“By shifting our focus to outcomes instead,” Ashley explained, “we open ourselves up to connect better with our teams, assess what we’re doing well and where we’re falling short, and have the opportunity to learn and grow together.”

And why does that matter? She added, “When our teams feel more connected, they’re more engaged in their work. When they’re more engaged, they give you effort above and beyond what is expected. And when you have your team’s full effort, you will not only achieve the goals you’ve set forth, but you can blow them out of the water.”

In addition to helping your employee engagement and motivation, it can also help keep your work on track by forcing you to connect your output to a bigger business goal. It’s all too easy to be so focused on output that you forget to pause and consider its effectiveness, an essential moment of reflection to Ashley: “When we focus purely on managing outputs as leaders, we deny ourselves the most essential part of a successful business – the human element.”

You can accomplish a lot, but human thought and judgement is required to ensure your accomplishments are serving a bigger purpose.

How to start measuring outcomes in addition to outputs

Like I said earlier, perfectly good management advice often focuses on managing outputs. This is because they are important. After all, they’re how the outcomes are achieved. But when you’re looking to level up your leadership skills, and your team’s engagement, it’s important to look beyond those daily tasks and outputs.

When that happens, it’s important to transition strategically so that as you and your team don’t lose sight of your short-term routines as you start looking at big picture outcomes more frequently.

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Here are a few tips for leading that shift:

1. Lead with transparency and purpose

When you first start drawing your team’s focus to outcomes, let them know why. Include them in the process of mapping outputs to outcomes and explain the purpose of the project.

One of the big benefits of focusing on outcomes over output is that it lets employees feel more connected to the company, its results, and its mission. But only when they’re fully included in the process. So the sooner you loop them in, the better.

2. Start with setting goals

Team goal-setting is a great exercise to start this new management outlook with. During goal-setting conversations, you’re forced to consider both your teams’ responsibilities and activities, as well as the bigger goals they contribute to.

Find Outcome Based Metrics

If you aren’t sure about how to lead your team’s goal-setting, thankfully there are several frameworks you can lean on for help. Many of the popular goal-setting methods, like OKRs and S.M.A.R.T. goals, ask you to connect outcomes and output.

For example, OKR exercises ask you to tie outcomes like big picture business objectives to tangible, output-driven results. Going through them, you’ll “translate” each bigger outcome into what output is required for it, instead of looking at output alone.

This doesn’t need to be an elaborate teamwide activity completed at an offsite retreat, either. Goal-setting can simply be another conversation had during your employees’ regular performance reviews.

3. Choose quantitative metrics to track

A key part of connecting outputs to bigger outcomes is being able to see results. This isn’t always possible from day to day. Either you’re handling a larger project where small progress isn’t immediately noticeable, or the impact your team is having isn’t a tangible thing that can be seen, like in the case of many knowledge workers.

Finding quantitative metrics to represent the outcomes you’re working towards makes progress more noticeable, making it easier to keep your team motivated.

For example, a sales team will want to track outcome-focused metrics like hitting sales goals and revenue earned. But those goals don’t happen in a vacuum. To make sure they happen and keep your team on track along the way, tracking output towards them can help visualize progress. In an area like customer support, where success is less directly tied to dollars, consider output-focused metrics like improvements in customer wait times to work towards your larger outcomes of improving customer satisfaction and growing your brand reputation..

4. Review progress regularly

Finally, be sure that both you and your employees are reviewing results regularly, ideally together.

We’ve already mentioned performance reviews. Those are a perfect opportunity to discuss long-term outcomes with your team members one-on-one. To ensure employees don’t get too bogged down in outputs, you can use reviews to set and check in on individual goals, as well as how the employee’s role ties into the bigger company’s picture.

In addition to reviews, you should be checking in at least weekly with your team outside of that. This is your chance to review team progress towards bigger outcomes, outside of your existing stand-ups or scrum meetings for discussing output..

Both outcomes and outputs can easily be forgotten if you don’t check in on them often, let alone pair them together to ensure your team’s work has purpose. But with regular reviews, it’s build into your schedule.

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Brittany Berger is a contributor to the blog and freelance writer for SaaS companies. You can follow her on Twitter at @thatbberg
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