Influencing outcomes through output

Dear new developer,

“Outcomes over output” is one of my favorite letters on this blog. In it, Mark, a guest poster, talks about what business actually values (outcomes) over what developers often focus upon (outputs).

Outcomes are things like:

  • more sales
  • happier customers
  • publicity
  • less customer churn

Outputs, on the other hand, are things like:

  • more features
  • test coverage
  • flexible code
  • customer retention analytics

The reason that I focus on outputs is that is what I can control. Outcomes, except in rare cases, are outside of my control. For instance, at a startup a while back, I wrote a lot of code, but couldn’t control how the sales process was going. I felt whipsawed between building things as fast as I could when sales seemed to be happening at a snail’s pace.

It’s important to recognize that business, like life, is a long game. You are the result of choices you (and those who have influenced you) have made.

So, also, are the outcomes upon which you are judged in your career. To square this circle and relate outcomes to outputs as best as I can, I do the following:

  • Recognize the tension. All I can control are the outputs; I can only, at best, influence outcomes. But people pay for results, not for effort.
  • Find best practices. If others have completed tasks or created outputs which produced desired outcomes, learn about them. I don’t follow the same paths uncritically (cargo culting) but need to know about them to make informed choices.
  • Be methodical. When I choose to produce an output, make it good. How good depends on the audience and possible payoff: a script to load data once deserves less care than code that will be run thousands or millions of times. But, I strive to make anything I do excellent.
  • Find ways to incrementally improve outputs over time. These can include automated tools, checklists, and incorporating new practices. I can also choose to stop. This is a strategic choice that shouldn’t be considered every day; once in a while, though, I ask myself if I need to keep producing this output.
  • Experiment. Tweak outputs and see if the outcomes change. Sometimes this is easy and quick, other times I’ll need months to see changes. This requires patience.

What can you do if you are in a situation where the outcomes and the outputs are totally divorced from each other? Where your effort isn’t going have any effect on desired results?

That’s a tough place to be. I would feel ineffectual and frustrated. I think if you are in this situation, you need to sit down on a weekend and spend some time thinking about how you want to spend your life. Of course, there are valid reasons to hang tough:

  • Desired outcomes might be shifting
  • New outputs are being tested
  • Your role is changing

If that is the case, hang on if you can; sometimes a job is stormy but it is better afterwards and therefore worthwhile to see through. After all, outcomes aren’t just hard for you to influence, they are hard for everyone.

But if you do some thinking and find that your efforts have been disconnected from outcomes for a while, and that your nerves are frayed, change the situation. Whether that is leaving a job or moving to a different town, changes can reset your life. And hopefully put you in a position where your outputs are more in line with desired outcomes.

Sincerely,

Dan

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