Outcome-Based Thinking

For years, one of the buzzwords in our schools has been “outcome-based” education. Innovation is also outcome-based—outcome-based thinking. For that matter, finding success in any endeavor is about outcome-based thinking. You may be a world class expert in celestial navigation but those skills are worthless without a destination.

The importance of setting goals and objectives is such a truism that it’s long since become a cliché (but it’s still true). The question that rarely gets asked in any depth is, “Why?” What is it about goals that makes them such a valuable tool? The simplistic answer is, “So you know where you’re going.” Certainly, any leader needs to have objectives. But a more enlightening answer to the “Why?” question is: Because defined outcomes provide clarity.

That clarity is crucial because the world doesn’t behave mechanically (especially the business world). Cause and effect is never a simple progression. The actions we take inevitably evoke a response, from our employees, our customers, our suppliers, our competitors. Their actions inevitably evoke a response from us and from each other. Some of those reactions are predictable. Others are utterly unpredictable.

What you as a leader lead, is not an army that’s certain to follow your every command. What you face is not a single well-defined enemy. Instead, it’s a complex web of influence and interdependence. Trying to sort through all of those relationships mechanically is hopelessly complex.

What a defined outcome provides is a set of criteria, so we can pack for the journey and navigate along the way. By setting a clear objective and mentally working backwards, we know what to bring along, what we probably won’t need, and what we may want to have “just in case.” When we hit an obstacle, it’s really just a detour—because we know where we want to end up.

Outcome-based thinking is crucial to productive innovation. Everyone in your organization needs to have a clear grasp of where you’re going. That’s how they know what has value and what’s secondary or irrelevant. Will some idea, if implemented, help move you closer to the outcomes you have articulated? Will it make it easier or faster or cheaper to get there? (Those things are not always immediately measurable in hard dollars.)

When you veer off course a bit, how will whoever’s hand is on the rudder at that moment know what adjustments to make? You know there are plenty of waves coming at you, fickle customers, uneven supplies, technical glitches, shipping delays…whatever. The person best suited to respond to an unforeseen challenge is frequently whoever’s closest to the problem. The best time to react is often now. Doing that sort of improvisation in a way that will advance your objectives, rather than undermine them, requires that person to have a clear grasp of your intended outcomes.

If you want productive innovation, everyone needs to understand exactly what the destination is. Sometimes great innovations are not those things that change our direction, but that make sure we get where we’re already going, despite choppy seas.

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