I was recently reminded of the importance of following a solid process for ensuring success using outcomes.

Manage by outcome, not by task.

You want to tell people what the desired outcome is and let them figure out how to achieve it. The alternative is micro-management which does not develop the abilities of people to solve future problem; and it stifles creativity and the desire for some autonomy over your work.

But using outcomes doesn't guarantee success.

Have you ever played that game where one person reads a long complex sentence. Then they pass it on to the next person, and the next, and the next…. Then the person at the end says the secret phrase out loud and it is compared to the original. It never matches.

In fact, it is usually totally messed up.

Communicating or delegating work is like that; and the more people involved, the more messed up it can get.

Human memory is subject to both interpretation and loss. The more time passes since the assignment is given, the more it gets messed up.

Outcome Example

The initial assignment as described in the kickoff meeting:

"We used approach A (technology and process) to do some complex work in the past. It took longer than expected and is not suitable for client work in many cases because it is too expensive. Let's try to make things better by using approach B. Learn the technology and build out a test solution using approach B. The goal is to determine if and when approach B would be better than approach A both from an initial build cost and in facilitating future client changes."

Three weeks into to the project the team thought the scope of the assignment was something closer to:

"We are replacing approach A with approach B in future client projects. Learn the technology for approach B and build out a test case to prove it works."

I am not putting this here to pick on my team, and to be fair, it is actually just as much my fault as anyone else's. I assumed everyone understood and would remember the project outcome.

Assuming is bad.

This is a good lesson and reminder for me.

A Better Approach

The key to successful communication of outcomes is:

  • Explain the problem and desired outcome to the team,
  • Have the team confirm their understanding of the situation in the meeting and clarify by asking lots of questions. It may evolve a bit during the discussion.
  • During (or post meeting), have the team put the desired outcome in WRITING and share with all stakeholders. Having the team write out the desired outcome solidifies it and allows everyone to make sure they really get it.
  • How will you measure the desired outcome? What is the definition of success?
  • Then make that wording "in your face". Nobody should go along too far without validating what they are doing against the desired outcome. (It is SO easy to get side-tracked.) Read it out loud at status meetings, project review meetings, etc.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.
  • As a (project) manager, don't delegate and disappear. Follow-up and confirm that everyone is busy heading in the "right" direction.

Yes, this is common sense stuff for most people. Funny thing is, we sometimes forget anyways or slip into bad habits when we are busy.

The key to ensuring successful outcomes lies in doing it right, without exception.