credit: Lo (via Flickr)

The Problem With “Results” Thinking

“Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.”
William Bruce Cameron

I once had a boss who — to his credit — gave me free reign to mostly do whatever I wanted at my job. It was great, for a while. He gave me objectives once every six months, I went on my merry way, and did my thing. We met again six months later, and reviewed how I did.

In the interim, I engaged in a bunch of projects, created great working relationships with a bunch of people at the company, and learned more than I ever could had I been kept in my silo, focused on the numbers.

But during my last 2 performance appraisals with him, the inevitable “areas for improvement” came up — and the same one was in both: “being results oriented”. In his eyes, I was doing a lot of stuff, but I was not driving toward results.

He was right — I wasn’t driving toward results. But to me, that wasn’t a weakness.

The Invisible, Immeasurable Results

In my boss’s eyes, there were projects I was involved in that didn’t have immediate and direct results. There was no specific metric we tracked at the company where he could point to the number and say that it was bigger because of me. At the time, I just didn’t think that way. To an extent, I still don’t. It took me a while to figure out why, but I think I understand it now.

I have come to realize that there are both visible and invisible results. There are the ones we can measure very easily, and the ones that we can’t. For those invisible, and nearly immeasurable results, we can perceive them — get a feel for them — but they’re not exactly quantifiable. They don’t fit into a cell on an excel spreadsheet. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.

In fact, the immeasurable results are the ones that are often the most sustainable. Because they are gradual and almost organic, they become part of the system — whatever system that is — and they hang around naturally.

So getting Q4 sales up 40% by doing all sorts of crazy things and bending over backwards looks good in Q4 — but that’s about it. How’s the following Q1 looking, champ? How about the next two quarters ?Looks like even more back-bending if you want to avoid looking foolish, or just tiring yourself out.

Think Long-Term

I’m not arguing against aggressive growth goals for companies or people; but I am cautioning about them. The more aggressive the results you want, the more you have to understand how unsustainable they will likely be. Also, the more aggressive the goal, the more unnatural things you’ll have to do — and keep doing — in order to get there and stay there.

All this is to say that while quick and easily measurable results look good, the barely measurable changes — the hard to quantify ones — stand to bring the most benefit in the long run. I would hope that the long run is what nearly all of us are interested in. So I would think that this advice applies to most of us.

I’m not alone here. In fact, the Academy of Aerospace Quality at Auburn University has a handy table showing the differences between two kinds of management: Process-oriented, and Results-oriented. Check it out:

courtesy of

Most of this stuff comes straight out of Masaaki Imai’s beloved Kaizen writing. Focusing on the process, not necessarily the results, can actually have profound and long-lasting results. What’s more, once you get the improvement from it, you know how you got there, because you were focused on the process. The same can’t necessarily be said about results-based thinking.

This all goes hand-in-hand with thinking gradual, long-term, holistically, and carefully — and then acting accordingly. Believe it or not, that kind of strategy still works! Crazy, right?

Look, my old boss didn’t leave me without any lessons. He did help me to balance how I work, by getting me to step out from in the weeds every once in a while. But I still won’t push for results for the sake of results — knowing that they aren’t sustainable.

I focus on the process, the people, and the fairly un-glamorous things that aren’t necessarily moving the needle quickly and drastically. I like to think that it’s led me down a better path.

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