Modern Management’s Fetish That’s Getting in the Way of Your Success

by | Leadership, Planning & Strategy, Productivity

As a Western society, we are steeped in the belief that being a high-performer means doing more, all at once.

We’ve been conditioned to attach enormous value to being endlessly busy, and we conflate being busy with being important. We’re expected to wear the long hours we work and the lack of downtime as a badge of honor. We’re told we have to spend serious money on apps, tools, and software to help us get more done and spend hours of our time researching how to be more productive; how to do more, create more, produce more.

In short: our society has developed an obsession with increasing outputs.

However, it’s a fetish with myriad drawbacks. Because this obsession with outputs isn’t just causing us to miss out on family time, it isn’t just causing us to check emails during vacations and on the weekends, it’s actually reducing the quality of the work we produce, harming our ability to work collaboratively, and leading us towards chronically elevated stress levels and eventual burnout.

Our culture may tell us that productivity is about how much we do, but there’s a big difference between output — the amount of work we do — and outcome — the results of the work we do. And if we want to focus our attention and efforts on building effective organizations, high-performing teams, and meaningful results, it’s time to start prioritizing outcomes over outputs.

Outputs vs. outcomes: what’s the difference?

Outputs are the effort you exert and are entirely within your control to produce. Outcomes, however, are the result of your effort — they represent impact and value to your customers and stakeholders.

To clarify, let’s look at some examples.

Output could be…

  •   Building a bridge.
  •   Hanging a picture frame on the wall.
  •   Paddling hard in a boat.

Whereas the outcomes would be…

  •   People getting to the other side of the river.
  •   Smiling every time you see the happy family photo.
  •   And the outcome of paddling hard? Well, that depends — and it’s why this is such an important concept to explore.

Outcomes are contextual. They depend on the value you want to create and the requirements you have to meet.

In the case of paddling hard, perhaps the value lies in delivering cargo to people waiting downstream. Perhaps the value is to get exercise. It could simply be about enjoying the scenery on a different part of the river.

The problem is, when we’re expected to focus on output, we tend to overcomplicate processes, we focus on the wrong solutions, and often, we create outcomes that fall short of the value we planned to deliver.

Too often, we focus on answering the question: How will we do it?

Instead of considering the more significant questions: Why does this matter? and How will we recognize success?

Let me show you what I mean.

Crossing the river: why we need to stop focusing on the bridge.

Take the building a bridge example from above. I first started considering what bridges can teach us about outcomes when I saw Henrik Kniberg teach the world about alignment and autonomy at Spotify.

Imagine you and your team are on the banks of a deep, fast-moving river and you’ve been tasked with leading your team safely to the other side.

With a mindset that’s fixated on output, you’ll likely adopt the first strategy that seems both logical and doable; namely, you’ll decide to build a bridge.

What if you shift your focus to the desired outcome instead?

Are there other easier, cheaper, more efficient ways to cross the river? Perhaps a boat or even finding a natural crossing where the river narrows and a small leap is all it will take to safely reach the other side.

It might well be that building a bridge is the best option, but when you focus on outcome vs. output, you’ll be 100% certain that you’re spending your energy and your efforts in the most effective way.

However, there’s another layer to this shift of focus; returning to the question: what is the actual problem we are trying to solve?

Why does your team need to reach the other side of the river? Is there a danger they need to escape or a valuable resource they want to collect, like food or precious minerals? Could it be that the desired outcome has nothing to do with crossing the river and everything to do with seeking safety, food, or riches? And if so, how will that change your approach to the nature of your outputs and the requisite resources and energy expenditure?

Productivity and outcomes depend on knowing why you’re doing the work —  and knowing why and what the outcome needs to be is entirely a leadership responsibility.

A useful outcome will also answer the question, How will we know when to celebrate?

In other words, it will pass the Champagne Test —the success criteria will be clear enough that everyone will know exactly when it’s time to pop the bottle open to celebrate. 

It doesn’t matter how many bridges are built if no one is able to safely cross to the other side. Equally, it doesn’t matter how many bridges are built if there’s no food, no riches, no safety to be found on the other side.

With ever-increasing demands on our time, ideas to pursue, and problems to solve, organizations cannot afford to spend all of their time, money, and people on being busy, on logging more hours just for the sake of it, on producing more because more simply feels better. Organizations cannot remain loyal to a status quo created and defined by a societal obsession with outputs.

After all, if all anyone is doing is churning out more work, you may have profitable quarters, but you undoubtedly run the risk of mistaking being busy for being productive and settling for mediocre outcomes.

So let’s change the narrative. Let’s explore what happens when we shift focus from what we’re doing to why we’re doing it. And let’s all center our efforts on true productivity, Champagne-worthy outcomes, and designing organizations that create a positive impact on the world, quarter after quarter, year after year.

If you want to learn more about my evidence-driven approach to designing high-performing, agile organizations, grab a copy of my book, Real Flow: Break the Burnout Cycle and Unlock High Performance in the New World of Work.


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