“Confidence isn’t optimism or pessimism, and it’s not a character attribute. It’s the expectation of a positive outcome.”
– Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Outcomes are the currency of change
Imagine this. You are preparing to write an important paper for school or work. This paper, depending on what your teacher/boss thinks of it, will determine whether you fail or whether you succeed. It will have a massive impact on the next 6-12 months of your life, and you feel an incredible amount of pressure to get it right.
As you start to write the paper you realize something terrible – the teacher/boss never told you what the paper was supposed to be about. You go back through the notes from your meeting with them and, even though they made it clear that this paper was incredibly important and had to meet some criteria in order to move you forward, they never told you what the subject or criteria were. And now they are on vacation and you can’t contact them before it’s due.
What do you do? Write a poetic book on cats? Pick a subject that you think your teacher/boss cares about and write an encyclopedia of knowledge about it? Throw your hands up in the air, convinced that the gods have conspired against you to make this situation un-winnable?
How do you react when you are put in a situation where the desired outcome isn’t clear?
You are the one assigning the paper
Nudge your imagination over a little to the left and picture that it is you on both ends of the transaction. You assigned an ambiguous project to yourself, knowing that it was incredibly important for your future. Can you think of some time in your life where you gave yourself a goal without a clear outcome and then got frustrated or scared when you couldn’t figure out how to accomplish it? Maybe that goal was to ‘get healthy’ or to ‘figure out retirement’ or maybe it was something totally different. You got excited about finally getting this elephant out of the living room of your life, but somewhere along the way, you realized you didn’t actually know what you wanted to do, how to do it, or how to know when it was done. And then you reacted similarly to how you would in the example above.
So, how do you avoid this trap?
Recognize why outcomes are important
- They serve as a focal point for your efforts. When you know what the desired outcome is you are far more effective at directing your energy there, which means that you are far more likely to achieve the outcome. Example – If you have an important meeting across town at a specific address then you can focus on getting there. You pick what you believe to be the fastest route, you can build in enough time to get ready before leaving, you’ve got a pretty good idea if you have enough gas in the car to get there without stopping to fill up.
- They help prevent you from getting lost. If you’ve got the address for the meeting but you somehow get lost you can google the address and route, you can ask strangers how to get to the ‘xyz building’, etc. Imagine if you were simply told to get to the ‘east side of town’ for that meeting though, with no specific address. When you are lost how do you get directions there? Google doesn’t know where to take you and when you ask people around you they ask you ‘east of what?’. You end up driving around in circles, getting frustrated and eventually running out of gas. Clear outcomes are like an address for where you want to go.
- Clear outcomes let you measure your progress. When you have the address to the meeting you can look at a map and compare where you are to where you want to go. If the road you are on is taking you farther away from the meeting, you know you need to get on a different road. You can measure your progress when you have clear outcomes, determine if you are on target, and change your strategy accordingly.
Outcomes vs. outputs
In order to create clear outcomes for yourself, make sure you know the difference between outcomes and outputs.
- Recognize the difference between outcomes and outputs. This seems really simple, but can be a challenge in real life. Outcomes can be viewed as the end goal for our actions. Outputs are the actions themselves. In the example of the meeting above the outcome is to arrive on time at the right place. The outputs would be getting ready, selecting a route, getting directions when lost, making sure you don’t run out of gas along the way.In the paper writing example at the beginning, the outcome is to turn in a paper that will impress your teacher/boss. The outputs are identifying what the paper is about, researching the topic, and actually writing the thing.
- Remember that the outputs aren’t what matters. This is a tough one. Your boss doesn’t care if you drove a lot trying to get to the meeting if you ended up being late or never show up. Your teacher doesn’t care how much energy went into writing the paper, as long as it meets the criteria for what they wanted. It’s really easy for most of us to fall into calling our outputs success. If your outcome is to get 25 new clients for your business in the next 3 months with a 65% retention rate six months from now then it doesn’t matter if you are cold-calling, blogging, going to networking events, or throwing smoke signals up in the air. All that matters is whether you are going to get those 25 new clients in the next 3 months.Stay focused on the goal, and adjust your means of getting there to whatever actually works (and keeps you out of jail).
What makes a great outcome?
There are a few things to keep in mind when creating outcomes that will make them far more effective.
Positively stated. Make sure that your outcome is pointed toward something, not away from something. This is the difference between your boss telling you to show up at the XYZ building for the meetings, instead of them telling you not to show up at the ABC building for the meeting. If you are not supposed to show up at the ABC building but don’t know where you are supposed to show up you still aren’t likely to succeed.
Meaningful. Outcomes should always be meaningful. This makes us more likely to want to achieve them and gives us a reward that is worth working for. Hitting a specific number on a scale is rarely meaningful, especially when being able to play basketball with your friends or being able to feel great while wearing ‘that dress’ to the party is what is really driving us. A useful question is “What does this outcome add to my life that wasn’t there before?”
Focused. Guess what – you can’t achieve everything at once. Identify what the single most important outcome for you would be and exclude everything else until you achieve that one. If your outcome is to go to yoga twice a week, deadlift 300 pounds, eat a plant-based diet, lose 15 pounds, and meditate once per day how likely do you think you are to succeed? You’ve only got so much mental, physical, and emotional energy to invest – make sure you are doing so in the way that is most likely to get you the results you want. Do this by focusing your outcomes. This also makes it much easier to measure your progress.
Measurable. Making outcomes measurable gives us a tool to decide if we are making progress. If the goal is to increase your flexibility in 2 months by going to yoga twice per week, how will you know if you have improved your flexibility? What is the standard which you are measuring against? Picking the right standard moves you towards the outcome instead of getting stuck on the outputs.
Bound in time. It’s a terrible truth – deadlines make us work. The difference between getting 25 new clients, and getting 25 new clients in 3 months is vast. One allows us to slack and one doesn’t. If this outcome is truly important to you, put a deadline on it and get yourself moving.
Now that you’ve got a better idea of why outcomes are so important and how they work, decide what your outcomes are and start coming up with a plan to achieve them.
If you feel stuck and don’t know how to get started, check out this post.