Are you driving outcomes or activities?

So often, when teams define their strategy, they tend to target activities instead of outcomes.

For example, they promise:

  • ‘Installing a new order shipping tracking system’ instead of ‘80% of our orders are shipped on time’;
  • ‘Create a process that gives visibility to post-sales issues’ versus ‘all post-sales issues are resolved within 24 hours’; and
  • ‘All sales employees have gone through our sales training program’ instead of ‘we have raised the average productivity of the sales team from 2 million per person to 3 million.’

While activities are essential for executing and delivering the results, they should not be the starting point of any strategy.

The job of leaders is to make strategic choices about where they want to take their organization. When it comes to strategic outcomes, there are no right or wrong answers. In fact, no matter how much analysis you do, you never really know if your bet will succeed. We have all seen sure bets fall short, and unexpected bets succeed beyond expectations. In order for a team to create a powerful strategy, the leaders must be 100% aligned on their strategic choices/commitments.

While outcomes are derived from choices, activities should be derived from the outcomes. Outcomes change when leaders feel there is a strategic reason to change them (for example, market change, merger & acquisition, etc.). However, activities should be periodically inspected and adjusted any time they are no longer useful or effective. Needless to say, the focus and direction of activities could change much more frequently than outcomes.

When a team locks into clear outcomes, that higher purpose helps the managers and employees determine their action plans and activities. But when leaders lock into activities, this often creates busyness in the organization.

I can’t tell you how many times I see people being so consumed with busywork that they have lost track of the higher purpose that led to the busyness in the first place.

In addition, the focus on the activities (means) versus outcomes (end) hinders the ability of the team to assess the effectiveness of their activities and make the necessary changes if they are not effective. Most organizations are good at adding activities, but they rarely stop them.

Lastly, the activity-based approach undermines accountability. Real accountability is always for clear outcomes. Accountability for clear results fosters a mindset of overcoming obstacles. The activity-based approach tolerates shortfalls and promotes a circumstantial mindset of blame and excuses.

People often justify the activity-based approach with statements like: “We can’t control/guarantee the results. We can only control/guarantee our activities…

But that is like searching for your lost car keys under the lamp post versus where you actually lost them.

Yes, you may be able to control your activities. But the activities you can control may not get you to your desired outcomes.

When it comes to strategy, there seem to be two schools of thought:

Promise your desired outcomes and then put the activities in place to fulfill them.”

Promise the activities that you assume will get you to your desired outcomes and hope they will be enough.”

Leaders who believe in the first seem to have a more powerful paradigm and approach towards outcomes.

They seem to believe that they do have control over achieving their outcomes. They seem to believe that:

  1. If achieving their outcomes requires enrolling others who are not part of their team to the task, they have the ability to do so.
  2. If achieving their outcomes requires coming up with new ways of doing things, they have the ability to figure that out.
  3. If achieving their outcomes requires investment in resources and budgets, they have the ability to make the business case for that.
  4. And, if achieving their outcomes requires some “magic” and “luck” if they stay optimistic, positive, and determined in their attitude, conversations, interactions, and energy, they have a higher chance to succeed.

The last paragraph may seem not tangible or real to you… However, ask any Olympic athlete or championship sports team about the importance of positive, high-energy mindset to winning and the amount of focus and time they spend on this topic, and you will be surprised by how tangible and real this dimension is for winning.

In today’s world, where opportunities are abundant, resources are scarce, competition is fierce, and everyone is looking for ways to scale and do more with less; you can’t afford to waste time and cycles on busyness and activities that may not deliver the results you want. You have to be much more deliberate and powerful than that.

The job of a leader is not to track and report on activities. It is to cause outcomes.

So, if you are not going to promise to cause specific outcomes, don’t promise anything at all!

Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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