Perhaps the best way to appear more like a leader is to learn to speak in terms of outcomes rather than simply tasks, timelines, and deliverables. In fact, one of the best ways to be a better leader (and contributor) is to think in terms of outcomes.
There are two broad categories of outcomes: intended and unintended. Intended outcomes are the impacts we are deliberately seeking to make. Unintended outcomes are the impacts that we inadvertently make (e.g. making a team work extensive overtime to hit a deadline can result in poor quality and team attrition as unintended outcomes). It’s important as a leader to expand our mindset to embrace both.
It’s easy to confuse outcomes with tasks, deliverables, etc., so I’ll provide an example to help clarify, starting with intended outcomes. Let’s say we want our leadership team to be informed regularly of our financial status, so we decide we need a monthly report. Creating the financial report is a task. The report itself is a deliverable or artifact. People receiving and reading the report can create the outcome of being informed.
This is where good outcome-focused thinking really makes a difference. What have we achieved by sending out this report? If the driving outcome is only to inform people, it’s likely that we’ll develop a report that is so full of information and data points that no one knows what to do with it and so it gets ignored. Sound familiar?
Instead, what if the intended outcome was to “enable our leadership team to actively make resource allocation decisions to improve our margin.” This isn’t simply informing or building knowledge. This drives to truly achieving something - improved margin through better resource stewardship. Depending on the environment a report may or may not be the right means of achieving this. But if a report is the right vehicle, there is far more clarity on why we’re building the report that we are far more assured that it will actually be useful.
Outcome focus is so important in my mind that it forms a core principle for my approach to leadership:
This is perhaps a nuanced difference, but it’s a matter of shifting our thinking from “we have to do something” to “we have to achieve something”.
The power of this can be seen when one of the people I coach had a situation where if she didn’t complete a task over the weekend there would be significant repercussions with the client. The thing was, for various reasons she couldn’t complete the task as specified. After a brief moment of panic she stopped thinking about the task and thought through what outcome that task was supposed to achieve. With that in mind, she was able to take a completely different action that wasn’t blocked and could still achieve the needed impact. End result was that she kept the client happy.
Moving to an outcome focus gives us a why, a purpose. It’s what gives our work deeper meaning. Ultimately, it gives us clarity on how to do our work far more than any micromanaging can achieve. Learning how to focus on outcomes and how to guide your teams through outcomes will transform how you engage with the world around you and make you truly effective.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.