Product teams deliver outcomes, not outputs
Originally published at https://visitmy.website on April 26, 2019.
A colleague at Government Digital Service recently told me that they’d adopted objectives and key results (OKRs) in their team, but they were struggling with the objectives (plural) their leadership had set. The objectives just described the things that the leadership team wanted them to do rather than problems to solve. They had been given a list of outputs, not outcomes. This meant the team was finding it hard to buy into the mission and worried they might not explore the problem space enough.
Outputs vs outcomes
An output is a thing which a team produces or does. ‘Build this thing, upgrade this thing, change this thing.’ An outcome is an end result which a team delivers or reaches. ‘Improve this experience, increase this measure, explore this market.’ Setting outputs is easy, we’re all focussed on doing things. But doing things to reach an end result is a bit more complicated; achieving outcomes requires domain expertise, a willingness to explore the problem space, and a culture which supports experimentation.
Take apples as an example. I eat apples because they are tasty and healthy. All apples are alike, in that they are all tasty and healthy…until someone produces an apple which is tastier. Or an apple which is crisper. Or stores over winter longer. In an apple market with different varieties from different producers, I tend to buy products with the characteristics which appeal to me. These differentiators help me choose one eating experience from the others.
Producing an apple is an output. Producing a tastier apple is an outcome.
Turning ‘Build this’ into ‘Realise that’
My colleague was looking for guidance on how an objective should relate to a known problem, and not just be things on the leadership team’s wish list, which my previous post on OKRs didn’t cover. In the past, I’ve found that instead of asking what you’re doing but why you’re doing it, leadership teams share some of their vision which helps you turn outputs into outcomes.