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Executive Corner – Measure Outcomes Not Tasks

Michael Clegg | 01/12/2023

I learned a saying a long time ago that I use every week with clients. “The busyness of the business will take you out of business.” That can take on many meanings. A few of these meanings:

  • Your day is spent reacting to things that happen in the moment rather than planning
  • You fill your day trying to complete tasks instead of planning outcomes
  • Following the false narrative that being busy equals being productive

When you let your day plan you, it limits your progress. I see it every day. The end of the workday arrives, and you know you are busy and have no idea what you accomplished. That feeling comes from being very reactive to your environment. There are many steps you can take to avoid this happening. Regardless of how disciplined you might be, we all struggle from time to time with letting the day get away from us.

Steps to avoid mistaking busy with production:

  • Focus on the outcomes that you want to achieve
  • Learn the difference between when to delegate tasks and/or authority (When is it appropriate to do each?)
  • Learn to say no or not now

Outcomes are the events, occurrences, or changes in conditions, behavior, or attitudes that indicate progress toward a project’s goals. Outcomes are specific, measurable, and meaningful. The outcomes of a project or task are the destination. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that you don’t have KPIs or OKRs in your organization. Those should tell a story about how to get to an outcome.  Understanding the story that the KPIs are telling is essential. I often see leaders measuring those KPIs successfully yet don’t get the desired results. That usually stems from the employee being so activity-focused that she doesn’t focus on the result.

Let’s discuss some suggestions to help you shift to outcomes:

1.    Focus on the outcomes that you want to achieve.

Outcomes are the “why” you do the activities and tasks. It is the ultimate end goal of a project or task. Outcomes are how people and companies grow. An article on explains the differences between outcomes and tasks.

“With both terms, you’re looking at the same picture from different distances. Outcomes are the big picture, zoomed-out view, where output is the close-up view that lets you see the individual pixels or paint strokes, the components that make up the whole.” (sic)

I like the above description explaining the picture from a distance. I often tell my leaders that I don’t care how the sausage is made. What I mean when I say that is that my expectation is the result of the sausage. Does it look appetizing? Does it taste good? I don’t need to understand the tasks and activities to get tasty sausage. That happened as part of the process of planning. That’s me delegating authority.

2.    Learn the difference between delegating tasks vs. authority.

This is a straightforward concept. It is also one of the areas I see leaders needing to be corrected most frequently. For example, the leader, Michael, asked the employee Sam to “make sure the common area has the trashed removed daily, that there are no dishes in the sink, and that the refrigerator was clean.” Michael gives Sam particular activities to do. The outcome is a clean common area. He is not giving him the power to get to an outcome. Instead, he tells Sam the steps to take to achieve the result. That is “delegating tasks.” Delegating authority, in this case, would look like this: Michael asks Sam to “make sure the common area is clean every day before he leaves.” He doesn’t tell Sam what or how to do it. He gives him what the final product should look like.  Delegating authority is just passing your leadership power down to the employee to let them determine the best activities to get to the desired outcome. Data shows that most employees prefer being delegated authority over being delegated a task. That’s a “command and control” style of leadership.

  • What determines how to decide which to delegate?

In the clean common area example above, I would advise the leader Michael to determine Sam’s professional maturity. If Sam’s a newer employee, then it would be helpful or instructive to give him some direction on what a clean common area should look like. If so, then you will likely delegate tasks to Sam. If Sam is an experienced employee with a history of excellent performance, then you should delegate authority to him. While I try not to focus much on tenure or experience level, it shouldn’t be ignored when determining the direction given.

3.    Learn to say “NO” or “Not Now.”

When you say “yes” or “no” to a request, you determine where you spend your personal resources and priorities. If you don’t have priorities, you will take on more than you can handle. This happened quite a bit during the pandemic when workers’ work/home life boundaries were blurred. If the request does not fit your current priorities, then saying “no” outright is the only solution. If something of value fits your priorities but it’s lower on the priority scale, you can say yes but “not now.” When you say, “not now,” be prepared to determine when you will take on the request. Both responses save you time and chaos. The primary reason that “No” and “Not Now” are important is due to the outcomes. Taking on more than you can handle will result in a negative or poor outcome. Ultimately, your performance will suffer.

Some organizations focus more on the output and the time that people work. This is a VERY big mistake. Your employees will start finding tasks to fill when you want them to work. Instead, start with the outcome that you want for each role. Those outcomes should determine the amount of time and effort needed. I spoke with one of my clients last week and told her, “I would rather you work 25-30 hours and get the desired results than 40-45 hours just to punch the time clock.” However, that is the culture of her environment from a previous leader. He expected her to work a certain number of hours. We will change her mindset and are in the process of that now; it will take some time. When we direct outcomes, our teams will be much more efficient, giving them more time and, in most cases, could take on more responsibility which is a benefit to the company.

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