From Output-Based to Outcome-Based Work
Achievement for its own sake won’t matter if it’s not making a difference
“Incentivizing product managers on the amount of features they ship is the wrong idea. More features ≠ better product.”
This was from a conversation I had with my friends Willie and Kendrick, who both have been working as product managers for 4/5+ years. We were talking about the problem of linking individual bonuses to produced output, and it had me thinking.
There’s tons of great writing about how foolish it is to build features without knowing the impact the feature is intending on making.
However, I think what isn’t often said is this: the process of building something, finding out that it wasn’t the most impactful thing to build, taking a step back to articulate the impact you’re trying to make, and finally building a thing that was different from that first thing you were building is tough.
As a self-proclaimed achievement-oriented person, I’ve built more low-impact deliverables than I’d like to admit. Oftentimes I experience more satisfaction from completing my to-do list, shipping a deliverable, or accomplishing a goal than from actually solving a real problem. My brain tends to do this:
Problems (especially complex ones) are amorphous, amorphous problems are tough to break down into discrete tasks, and any task completed is progress, so… I’m just going to do that thing. K brb, going to work on that thing, bye. 🏃♂️
It’s this exact train of thought that leads to my soul being crushed because I realize the thing I worked on was the least valuable thing to work on after the fact. It’s even more soul crushing when the thing I made isn’t put to use!
This exactly is why tools like user stories and impact mapping exists. You know your team is working on the right thing when you took the time to ask, “What benefit will we realize by building <x>? What impact will we make by doing <x>?”
However, I want to make the case that you should practice asking this same question on an individual level. Especially if you’re an achievement-oriented nerd, especially if you have grit and resolve, and most especially if your bonus is linked to shipping features or producing a shitload (instead of actually making a positive impact on the user/customer).
Here’s how you can do this. Before diving into any project or piece of work, ask yourself two questions:
- “What’s the impact I want to make?”
- “Will I reach the impact I want to make by doing this thing?”
If your answer to 2 is a yes, do that thing.
If your answer to 2 is a no, don’t do that thing. Figure out what you need to do instead to reach that impact.
If your answer to 2 is “I’m not sure,” you probably need more information. Ask for advice from a trusted friend or colleague. Do a small portion of the work you’re trying to complete, look at the data, and evaluate whether it’s on its way towards making that impact or not.
The key here is to be honest with yourself and exercise judgment. Just because a project you want to take on feels like a “sweet challenge” or a “sick idea” doesn’t mean it’ll make a significant impact.
To be fair, there are certain instances where you should produce more output and not spend too much time figuring out the ideal outcome. Take writing, for example. If you ever spend time on Medium, you’ve probably told yourself “I should write more” (myself included). So you try to come up with the perfect piece idea, but you have a hard time nailing that down to the point where you’re have no idea what to write about. However, the amazing thing about writing is that you will have a much clearer idea of what you should write about from the sheer pursuit of writing a lot. Prioritizing output over outcome initially helps you realize the right outcome down the road.
But more output at the expense of working towards a clear outcome shouldn’t be the default mentality. We could all benefit from being clear with ourselves on the impact we want to make before diving into any hard project. By articulating the impact you want to make and assessing whether the thing you’re about to work on will achieve that impact, you work will, well, make more of an impact.
Because achievement for its own sake won’t matter if it’s not making a difference.
I’m Tim. These days I’m trying to write a bit more regularly, but ironically I don’t have a super well-articulated impact statement as to why. 🤷🏽♂️
I think a lot about how we can work more wisely, whether it’s through my work at The Ready (where I help global organizations change the way they work) or experimenting with my own personal productivity practice. Let’s talk on Twitter.