As a Western society, we are steeped in the belief that being a high performer means doing more all at once.
We’ve been conditioned to attach enormous value to being endlessly busy, and we conflate being busy with being important. We’re expected to wear the long hours we work and the lack of downtime as a badge of honor. We’re told we have to spend serious money on apps, tools, and software to help us get more done and spend hours of our time researching how to be more productive, how to do more, create more, and produce more.
In short: our society has developed an obsession with increasing output.
However, it’s a fetish with myriad drawbacks. Because this obsession with outputs isn’t just causing us to miss out on family time, it isn’t just causing us to check emails during vacations and on the weekends; it’s actually reducing the quality of the work we produce, harming our ability to work collaboratively, and leading us towards chronically elevated stress levels and eventual burnout.
Our culture may tell us that productivity is about how much we do, but there’s a big difference between output — the amount of work we do — and outcome — the results of the work we do. And if we want to focus our attention and efforts on building effective organizations, high-performing teams, and meaningful results, it’s time to start prioritizing outcomes over outputs.
Outputs vs. outcomes: what’s the difference?
Outputs are the effort you exert and are entirely within your control to produce. Outcomes, however, are the result of your effort — they represent impact and value to your customers and stakeholders.
Let’s look at some examples.
Output could be…
Building a bridge.
Hanging a picture frame on the wall.
Paddling hard in a boat.
Whereas outcomes would be…
People getting to the other side of the river.
Smiling every time you see the happy family photo.
And the outcome of paddling hard? Well, that depends — and it’s why this is such an important concept to explore.
"Outcomes are contextual. They depend on the value you want to create and the requirements you have to meet."
In the case of paddling hard, perhaps the value lies in delivering cargo to people waiting downstream. Perhaps the value is to get exercise. It could simply be about enjoying the scenery on a different part of the river.
The problem is, when we’re expected to focus on output, we tend to overcomplicate processes, we focus on the wrong solutions, and often, we create outcomes that fall short of the value we planned to deliver.
"Too often, we focus on answering the question: How will we do it? Instead of considering the more significant questions: Why does this matter? and How will we recognize success?"
Let me show you what I mean.
Crossing the river: why we need to stop focusing on the bridge.
Take the building a bridge example from above. I first started considering what bridges can teach us about outcomes when I saw Henrik Kniberg teach the world about alignment and autonomy at Spotify.
Imagine you and your team are on the banks of a deep, fast-moving river, and you’ve been tasked with leading your team safely to the other side.
With a mindset that’s fixated on output, you’ll likely adopt the first strategy that seems both logical and doable; namely, you’ll decide to build a bridge.
What if you shift your focus to the desired outcome instead?
Are there other easier, cheaper, more efficient ways to cross the river? Perhaps a boat or even finding a natural crossing where the river narrows and a small leap is all it will take to safely reach the other side.
It might well be that building a bridge is the best option, but when you focus on outcome vs. output, you’ll be 100% certain that you’re spending your energy and your efforts in the most effective way.
However, there’s another layer to this shift of focus, returning to the question: what is the actual problem we are trying to solve?
Why does your team need to reach the other side of the river? Is there a danger they need to escape or a valuable resource they want to collect, like food or precious minerals? Could it be that the desired outcome has nothing to do with crossing the river and everything to do with seeking safety, food, or riches? And if so, how will that change your approach to the nature of your outputs and the requisite resources and energy expenditure?
"Productivity and outcomes depend on knowing why you’re doing the work — and knowing why and what the outcome needs to be is entirely a leadership responsibility."
A useful outcome will also answer the question, How will we know when to celebrate?
In other words, it will pass the Champagne Test —the success criteria will be clear enough that everyone will know exactly when it’s time to pop the bottle open to celebrate.
It doesn’t matter how many bridges are built if no one is able to cross safely to the other side. Equally, it doesn’t matter how many bridges are built if there’s no food, no riches, and no safety to be found on the other side.
With ever-increasing demands on our time, ideas to pursue, and problems to solve, organizations cannot afford to spend all of their time, money, and people on being busy, on logging more hours just for the sake of it, on producing more because more simply feels better. Organizations cannot remain loyal to a status quo created and defined by a societal obsession with outputs.
After all, if all anyone is doing is churning out more work, you may have profitable quarters, but you undoubtedly run the risk of mistaking being busy for being productive and settling for mediocre outcomes.
So let’s change the narrative. Let’s explore what happens when we shift focus from what we’re doing to why we’re doing it. And let's all center our efforts on true productivity, Champagne-worthy outcomes, and designing organizations that positively impact the world, quarter after quarter, year after year.
Real Flow: Break the Burnout Cycle and Unlock High Performance in the New World of Work: Your organization is capable of higher performance than you imagined possible when you shift to Real Flow.
Business leaders have seen it before. Teams that should be achieving great work with ease are caught in a wild frenzy of competing priorities. Gradually their people suffer burnout, innovation evaporates, and time and energy are wasted on the wrong problems.
Thanks to this organizational multitasking, their organization is flooding from the pressure to do it all. But there is an unexpected solution to achieve high performance once again.
Organizational agility expert Brandi Olson brings front and center what happens when an organization chases too many priorities simultaneously. Featuring extensive interviews with organizational leaders, Real Flow demonstrates the principles of flow that will create the environment teams need to achieve and sustain high performance.
Integrating cognitive science, organizational agility, and lean principles, this is your guide to delivering exceptional value and enabling people to be happy, healthy, and engaged in their work.
The costly link between competing priorities, multitasking, and burnout and why no amount of vacation, self-care, or team-building activities will solve it.
How to embrace the ecosystem paradigm and the direct impact it has on an organization’s ability to adapt, change, and thrive.
Strategies to remedy the burnout problem that don’t involve doing less, expecting less, or shrinking the to-do list.
How to redefine performance to maximize human potential for the long term over the short term and what that will do for your teams.
The essential practice of limiting work in progress to improve the flow of value, plus the radical effect it has on solving the challenges your organization is facing.
Leaders don’t need to choose between good work and their teams’ well-being. Leading a high-performance organization depends on happy, healthy people. Read Real Flow and cultivate an evidence-driven approach to design a high-performing, agile organization, improve employee retention, and stop burnout for good.
"Insightful and pragmatic about the realities that companies face every day.... This book helps you put simple but effective strategies in place: outcomes over outputs, less is more, happy and healthy employees, dedicated working time, leaders actually leading by example and creating space to learn and innovate. A must read for all leaders." - Amanda Finney, Senior Vice President, Product Management and User Experience Design at Wells Fargo
"Brandi Olson's book explores the business impact and consequence of...misalignment (working on the wrong things), disengagement (and a lack of innovation), to burnout. Brandi reminds us of the reality of business systems and gives us ways to unlearn and rethink how we should be working. A timely book for all leaders of today (and tomorrow)." - Evan Leybourn, CEO and cofounder, Business Agility Institute
About the Author
Brandi Olson believes that you shouldn’t have to choose between doing good, important work and your own humanity. An expert in organizational design and agility, she teaches leaders how to solve problems and adapt fast to high-performing teams.
Brandi is a best-selling author of Real Flow: Break the Burnout Cycle and Unlock High Performance in the New World of Work. She is the founder of Real Work Done and lives in Minnesota with her kids, dog, chickens, and garden.