Balance outcomes and outputs to align teams and minimise risk

The right balance of outcomes and outputs means that teams and executives are aligned on understanding, language and what success will look like. This means better delivery, reduced risk and healthier teams. Senior leaders should consider whether they are getting the information they need to know how a programme is doing - making both outputs and outcomes visible is a good way to make that information clearer.

Photo by Piret Ilver on Unsplash

Agreeing what matters most when it comes to measuring progress is a common point of friction between digital delivery and traditional programme management.

Outcomes are great because they focus on the problems you are trying to solve. They’re meaningful and inspiring. They’re the things that get people up in the morning.

“All patients can access appointments in a way that best meets their needs”

Outputs are great because they are tangible. Real things you can measure in real time. They give you a sense of progress and momentum. These are valuable qualities when the outcomes you’re shooting for are ambitious, ambiguous and far away.

“% of trust specialties offering face to face, telephone and virtual consultations."

"% of patients choosing face to face / telephone / virtual consultation”

But the problem is that outcomes and outputs are often pitted against each other, in an either/or discussion. Or even worse, one is placed onto a pedestal compared to the other. This often happens with outcomes.

If you spend too much time looking only at outcomes then you miss the learnings and opportunities to pivot along the way. Thinking only about the big picture means you might miss a chance to do something differently. Or worse, keep going when you should stop.

Focusing only on outputs is equally risky. It can give a false sense of success and progress. ‘More and more people are doing x’ - great, but are their needs met? Because if not, that success will be very short lived.

This divide is common in organisations looking to solve complex problems, such as government and healthcare. The focus on outcomes in these areas is the right one, but it is the long game. It can create a scenario where leadership agrees the important outcomes and then sits back and waits for results. This can lead to periods of silence with teams feeling isolated and stakeholders unable to challenge. Then if progress isn’t seen to be happening it can lead to an overcorrection where the focus is wholly on outputs, to the point of losing track of the desired outcome altogether.

So outcomes and outputs must be balanced. This isn’t to say you should compromise on outcomes or outputs. Instead, you need both to truly understand where you are going, and how you are doing getting there.

However, setting outcomes and outputs for teams can remove creativity and motivation. Senior leaders have to give up some certainty and work with the teams to agree on the bigger picture outcomes and problems to solve. In return, those teams will need to be forthcoming in proposing outputs which are honest measures of progress towards an outcome. They will have to sacrifice some of the ambiguity that gives them flexibility. The amount of give and take from both sides will depend on risk appetite, the existing culture and scale. Taking the time to have this conversation at the beginning and getting it right up front is worth it.

The right balance is valuable

Getting it right means that teams and executives are aligned, challenge is constructive and conversations don’t start with an apology or people explaining context. A good balance of outcomes and outputs gives everyone a language to keep conversations high level, or dive into the weeds when you need to. And perhaps most importantly, nasty surprises happen less, because leaders and teams have a shared understanding of what is happening, what success looks like and are pulling in the same direction.

That can sound simple, but it is rarely done well. In my next post I'll cover how to think about outcomes, outputs and metrics at different stages of products and projects. And why adapting your approach regularly is the key to success.

This is a 2 part series. Part 2 will look at how to iterate outcomes and outputs to make sure they stay relevant and you stay on track.


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