4 challenges in shifting from outputs to outcomes (and what you can do about it)
Does your team get excited about delivering the latest innovation, but once it’s launched, question why you did it? You might be focused on outputs instead of outcomes. Outputs vs outcomes is a pivot in focus from what we are delivering to why we are delivering it. It’s less about the final delivered thing and more about what impact said thing will go on to have. I say thing because this concept can apply to anything. For example,
Output: A beautifully baked rainbow cake for family Sunday dinner
Outcome: Very impressed in-laws, increased likelihood of family acceptance
In digital product development
Output: New integrated platform for eCommerce site
Outcome: Uplift in traffic, cart conversions and CSAT results
The outcome is the real measure of success as your customers do not care about the new platform your website is on, but about what benefits it brings to them. However, businesses and individuals alike are struggling to be on board with the notion, as it requires a change in how we approach our work and what we celebrate in everyday delivery. Here are 4 barriers that teams face when adopting an outcome-based approach, and how to overcome them.
1. Success isn’t just delivery
Traditional delivery types are used to the north star being a new website or new app, but with an outcome-based approach, it’s about less tangible definitions. It’s that lovely consulting cliche- “What does success look like?”. Stakeholders often struggle when there isn’t a concrete concept to respond to, but we can help them define success and build trust that we’re both working toward the same goal.
What you can do:
- Use goal-setting frameworks such as OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). These not only clearly define targets, but also help prioritise work and manage ad-hoc requests.
- Have careful conversations about why you don’t solutionise at the start of a project. What some may see as vagueness, you can communicate is freedom. Gothelf & Sieden challenged their clients and asked, “If we can create this system and achieve these targets without building any of the features in your wish list, is that OK?”
- Change the Definition of Done. Include monitoring and continuous improvement as part of your delivery so that the responsibility doesn’t end when the product is created, but when the targets are reached.
2. Not everyone’s aligned on the outcome
You’ve defined a new goal-oriented product strategy. Great! But another issue when adopting an outcome-focused approach is that there’s disagreement around what that outcome should be. You might face questions like “Are we re-platforming this website to cut tech costs or is it to elevate the customer experience?” — the solutions for these two different outcomes can contradict one another.
What you can do:
- Be a champion for change management as a new approach needs to be properly embedded across teams. Take the time to speak to your teams, gaining their buy-in to the OKRs.
- Create shareable living documents, such as your OKRs and product roadmap, to ensure all your stakeholders are singing from the same hymn sheet. Within these documents, be sure to prioritise KPIs so that when conflicts like the above example arise, there’s a clear governance in place to get development back on track
3. Outcomes can be harder to measure
You have your definition of success and everyone’s on board. Wonderful. But measuring success is a bit harder now. Previous simple checks of “Did we deliver X by date Y?” are insufficient. Your KPIs may be softer, such as customer satisfaction, or maybe they’re tied to longer-term goals that can’t be measured immediately upon launch. It’s trickier and takes more work to demonstrate direct cause and effect.
The cause: Build website
The effect: New website live
The cause: New website
The effect: A whole variety of customer behaviours (some of which have a relationship with your KPIs)
What you can do:
- Build and release quicker to get in front of users sooner and in turn learn valuable lessons about what will move you toward your targets. Don’t hold off for a big bang release — test and experiment at speed so that you iterate toward the perfect solution.
- Invest in qualitative customer research to gain real insight from real customers. It can ensure that what you launch is based on a learned and supported answer rather than an inferred one.
- Collaborate with analytics SMEs to ensure you’re tracking the right user actions and leading indicators to prove that what you’ve delivered is driving the desired outcome.
4. There’s no guarantee
Even if you know what success looks like and you have a plan to measure it, there’s still no 100% guarantee those targets will be realised. With the indirect relationship between cause (output) and effect (outcome), it’s harder to sell in a piece of work that may not drive as much impact as hoped. This can lead to a lack of buy-in and a surge of uncertainty.
What you can do:
- Build a rigorous business case. Before embarking on a piece of work, map out the best and worst case scenarios. Call out the possible risks and issues and be upfront about them from the offset.
- Educate on the value of being outcome-focused instead of output-focused. Those guilty of output-focused crimes can become a feature factory, ultimately creating multiple outputs that end up in the bin due to a lack of true customer value.
All that said, an outcome-based approach means disregarding outputs. Agile Dad makes the point that both outcome and output measures are valuable. Referring back to the cake analogy, the methods and techniques used to bake the output ensured the intended outcomes were realised. In essence, the what, when and how are still important aspects in product development. We place focus on the why so that when you deliver a product, you’re doing it to achieve a meaningful KPI with an understanding of how you got there. With this process applied over time, your team can develop a common understanding for the types of products that drive KPIs, and build trust with stakeholders for more open-ended and creative work. Next time your executives are challenging the outcome-based approach, navigate around the barriers so that they understand how this method will drive fit-for-purpose, innovative solutions.
Have you faced these or other challenges aligning your team on goals rather than delivery items? Share your own experiences and how you tackled them in the comments below.