Do you define success by how fast your teams put out work? If so, it’s no surprise as production efficiency has been a key focus since the days of the Industrial Revolution. And while our industries may have changed over time, our thinking didn’t necessarily change along with it.
In this episode, the Product Outsiders take a deep dive into output vs. outcome and impact. We believe that organizations won’t be successful if they are delivering things faster, but the things being delivered aren’t hitting the mark with customers and consequently growing the business. What seems like a simple concept, in theory, isn’t necessarily an easy one to embrace in reality. Tune in as we share our thoughts on moving outcome and impact to the forefront in order to find success in building great products.
Product Outsiders – Ep 5
Product Outsiders – Ep 5
[00:00:00] Tammy Bulson: Welcome to Product Outsiders, a podcast for unconventional product people.
In a world awash MBAs and fancy suits, we’re the people standing on the outside our sleeves rolled up, ready to get some stuff done. We’re not product managers and the way you might think, but we’re undeniably passionate about solving problems for real people in ways to create real value, whatever you call us, we’re dedicated to building great collaborative teams and making incredible products.
Today’s episode is all about outcomes versus outputs.
I am Tammy Bulson. I’m an agile coach and my interest lies and figuring out the best way for people to play nice together.
[00:01:04] Will Sansbury: I’m Will Sansbury. I lead portfolio and product management for a supply chain company.
[00:01:09] Amber Hansford: And I’m Amber Hansford. I am a UX design manager, former product manager.
[00:01:16] Tammy Bulson: Excellent. Will and Amber, as you well know, I am super passionate about today’s topic. I mean, I’m kind of like over the top, excited about this topic. And for me, it all started when I was fortunate enough to attend some CSPO training with Jeff Patton, where he first explained this whole concept of outcome and impact over output.
And I was like, yes, this, I felt the same sense of AHA then as I did, when I was introduced to agile. I was just thinking, how did I miss this? And I figured it was just because I’m slower thinking than most people. But after that training, as I talked with other people, I realized that this concept isn’t as simple as it seems on the surface.
So, I think we need to take a step back and define what we mean by these terms, output and outcome and impact. Before we dive into our discussion. So I’m going to take a stab at defining them then Amber and Will can correct me.
So when we say output, it’s the things that teams put out. It’s the features and the functionality that the team delivers. Outcome, on the other hand, are the things that come out later after the output, it’s the way a customer’s behavior has changed because of the thing that was delivered or put out. If you listen to Patton, he’d say it’s the behavior change after a user finds the thing, uses the thing, keeps using the thing and then tells people about the thing.
And then impact is what happens to a business because of the outcome, because the user’s behavior has changed in some way, it impacts the business. So maybe it’s generating revenue or creating cost savings or growing brand recognition. It’s the impact on the business. As we define them, we purposely define them in that order because output drives outcome, outcome drives impact.
As far as definition, Will, Amber, anything to add?
[00:03:19] Will Sansbury: I think you’re spot on there, Tammy. It’s so easy, I think, for us to get stuck in just the churning out the output, the output is easy. It’s measurable. We can see it. It’s so simple, but the truth of the matter is, none of us ever build software for the heck of it. We build it because we want to leave a dent in the world somehow. And if we’re not careful about paying attention to that, quantifying it, making sure we did it, we can very easily just get stuck.
[00:03:46] Amber Hansford: Yeah. I like to put outputs as they’re the project manager’s dream while a good product manager focuses on the outcomes and the impact. To kind of crib off of Will just now, outputs are easy in the grand scheme of things, and you can put out some great stuff from a feature factory. Are you solving a customer’s problem? Um, don’t know, don’t care with an output you care with the outcomes and the impact that you make on your customers.
[00:04:19] Tammy Bulson: So why does this seem so much easier to focus on outputs?
[00:04:23] Amber Hansford: They fit in a Gantt chart.
It’s simplistic, but that’s just, you know, it, they are so much easier to measure and, you know, you can see it directly and you can see it a lot quicker than you can, some long-term outcomes or long-term impacts that you’ve made to the customers, those take time. And they also take just as much effort as that initial output.
[00:04:55] Will Sansbury: Yeah, I think the, the other thing that happens is outputs are completely controllable. You, as a company can decide whether or not you build a thing and ship a thing. If you don’t care, whether or not that thing does anything, I’m saying thing way too many times, then you can stop, right? You, you have shipped, you have completed, the project can move on to the next project. You never really have to worry about whether or not you’re accomplishing what you wanted to do there.
[00:05:23] Tammy Bulson: Yeah, good point. And, Amber, I think you made a really valid point when you said output is so much easier to measure and look at all the reporting that’s out there in the wild. You know, how many points per sprint, how many stories per sprint, those things are not only easy to measure, but they’re immediate, right? We think, we like things at our fingertips. And as soon as the sprint is done, we can go out and measure. But I think you’re both absolutely right. It’s a lot harder to measure outcome and probably even harder than that to measure impact.
[00:05:58] Amber Hansford: Yeah, it really is sometimes if not, just as much work as the initial offering. From the output to follow up and find out what your impact was on your customer, but it can be significantly harder. When I was product, and I went from working in media and entertainment where, God bless, I got instantaneous feedback from the fans on the internet. And then I moved to working on products that were all internal facing, and I was building products for developers.
If the developer wasn’t required to use that product? They just didn’t use it. They didn’t give us any feedback whatsoever. Why aren’t you using it? Oh, I don’t like it. Can you explain why you didn’t like it? What can we do to improve upon it? Until my manager tells me I have to use it, I’m just not going to use it. That was painful. Infinitely painful.
[00:06:54] Tammy Bulson: Sure.
[00:06:55] Will Sansbury: It’s interesting, when you think about the history of the software development industry. When I started my career in the late nineties, I was still working on software that got pressed into gold masters on DVDs. At least it wasn’t CDs, but it was DVDs. And then those got put into the clamshells and sent out to customers. The necessary lag between shipping the thing and getting feedback was tremendous. It, you know, your product had to literally go sit on the shelves at Best Buy before you could ever get anybody to buy it, install it and possibly give you feedback. And so I think we kind of, maybe we knew this, in the beginning, but it was so hard to do that we just didn’t do it. And then all those muscles have atrophied. And now that most of us have the luxury of living in the Sass world, where, like you said, Amber, you get instantaneous feedback. You can ship an integrate any time. It’s almost irresponsible not to be paying attention to impact.
[00:07:52] Tammy Bulson: How do we help transform that focus from output to outcome and impact? There’s a ton of attention on output. How do we shift our thinking and bring everyone along with us to instead focus on that outcome and impact? What are the things we can do?
[00:08:09] Will Sansbury: So Amber, how much time do you have? How much space do you have on your hard drive? Because I’m living this right now and I feel like I could go on a 12 hour tirade here.
[00:08:21] Amber Hansford: Let me pull up your soap box.
[00:08:24] Will Sansbury: Yeah, it’s interesting. So on the gig I’m in now, I’ve been about four months with my current company and working on really kind of driving this exact transformation with our product group, getting us to a place where we’re thinking about the outcome we want to create in the world.
And we’re measuring for impact, not just did we ship a thing. And it’s, the thing I’m, I’m struggling with the most, at this point is getting people to reframe their entire thinking to be about problems that they’re solving rather than being about things that they’re building. It’s so easy for, not just my current company, any company, really, to talk about the things that they’re going to build, and if you go pull a product roadmap, it’s probably a list of the things they’re going to build. It’s very rarely a set of questions that need answers. And I think there’s a few reasons for that. I think one, it’s incredibly vulnerable to say there are central questions to my line of business that I don’t have answers for yet.
And I think that makes some people very uncomfortable. I don’t know. I don’t know how we get people to stop defaulting, to defining projects and features and instead say, yes, this is a scrum team. Yes. They build software is one of the ways they do things. But what we’re going to ask them to do is solve a problem, answer a question, not ship a thing.
[00:09:48] Amber Hansford: I think that’s actually key is that you’ve got to shift that frame of reference, that the whole purpose in building, whatever it is that you’re building is to solve a problem. That’s a hell of a lot easier to say than it is to do and try to change those hearts and minds that are building the software because they have been just so ingrained into looking at it from that output thing.
How many story points can I put into the sprint? What’s my velocity and what’s my volatility? The greatest problem I have ever found in anybody who does any backlog management is focusing exclusively on velocity or volatility. And it depends on your flavor. Some people will focus on one. Some focus on the other. If you’re lucky, sometimes they focus on both, but that’s still such a small part of the larger ecosystem that you’re trying to build. And it still focuses on the building versus the problem that you’re trying to solve for that customer.
[00:10:54] Tammy Bulson: Yeah, that’s true. Because we could find a team that has super velocity and very little volatility, but if you’re producing something that doesn’t make a difference, what’s the point? If we say that one way we can turn the tide here is to focus on the problem that we’re trying to solve. Then the next step probably is we understand we have this problem. We believe we can solve it this way. And the, probably the key part next is, and we believe by solving it, it’ll do X for the company. Right?
[00:11:26] Amber Hansford: That sounds a lot like a hypothesis, Tammy.
[00:11:30] Tammy Bulson: I was trying not to use that word. Cause I used it last time alot. But thank you, Amber, for using the word. Yeah. Right. And then not just making a hypothesis, but the, the key is in measuring. Did we hit, did our hypothesis prove out? And if it did what did we learn from it?
[00:11:51] Amber Hansford: I think you got really that whole fear of failure. I know that we really don’t have time to go and deep dive into that whole topic, but I know that I will be putting it to the top of the list to chat about later. Cause that’s a big bugaboo, you know? Enough people out there in the universe will be like, oh yeah, you know, Facebook says to fail fast, except for they are terrified of failure. Abjectly terrified to fail. So they almost get into a weird analysis paralysis. And then again, you focus on that output. Well, I’m putting things out there into the universe, but are you solving a problem?
That’s how you’re actually failing fast is that you can build this absolutely beautiful product that nobody uses.
[00:12:38] Will Sansbury: This may be another too large for this episode can of worms, but I can’t help, but wonder how much of this struggle is tied up in poor conceptions of what it means to be a leader in most organizations.
And what I mean by that is an effective product manager really doesn’t know all that much. What they know is how to ask the right questions to get the right answers. They have a process for inquiry and discovery. And old school leadership mentality, leaders weren’t the people who ask good questions. They were the people who had the answers. And so I think, one of the challenges that comes with driving the sort of change in the product organization is that it is not as the product organization. You have to shift the entire company in their way of thinking to understand that we’re going off to learn. We’re going to go try some things that may never materialize. We’re going to go and investigate some things. We might take a scrum team, and not write a line of code for three sprints because we’re instead building a clickable prototype. And, and I don’t know, I don’t even, I’m been out of UX too long is Axure still a thing? Figma. That’s what all the kids are using these days. Figma. So, you know, it takes, if you haven’t shifted that entirety from, you know, from CEO down and really even from board of directors on down in a publicly traded company, you’re going to hit roadblocks. You’re going to hit challenges because you’re going to go in there with your list of things you want to learn about and you’re going to have somebody looking at you who expects you to have answers, not questions. And so how do you turn around and convince them that no, really, because I have these questions, I am doing my job. I swear, please, don’t fire me. That’s just a rough place to be.
[00:14:30] Amber Hansford: Not only may you not have the answers, but the answers that you come up with until you get it actually in front of those customers, you don’t know if they’re the right answers, so they could be completely off base and you have to completely shift, but without getting it in front of the customers, you could potentially ship something that never gets used.
[00:14:51] Will Sansbury: Yeah. And we’ve, we’ve seen that, right? If you look at the, there’s all sorts of it, sites that you can go all about the number of failed projects out there that don’t live up to the objectives that they set out in their initial charters. And I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m hitting my mid forties and starting to have midlife crises it seems like every other weekend, but I don’t know a point now where I don’t want to spend the limited years of my career building things that don’t matter. I want to make things that actually help people. And, this is a, this is the only way I know how to actually do that, is to focus on knowing those people, knowing their problems really well. And then checking back in with them on a regular basis as you’re moving through it.
[00:15:32] Tammy Bulson: So these are big meaty things. I mean, they are definitely things that we can address as whole episodes and future podcasts. Can we get to this shift of measuring the outcome and the impact without the whole paradigm shift, because these are big things, right? It’s how we hold each other accountable. It’s what we expect of teams. It’s thinking on a grander scale. Do we believe that that type of transformation has to happen before we can truly not focus on output?
[00:16:08] Amber Hansford: I would say yes, because if you don’t get everybody onboard with focusing on falling in love with those problems at the end of the day, it’s going to be theater versus actual change, and changing that focus on the outcomes versus the outputs. And I mean, you could probably do it on a small scale without like a big, huge, the whole company, but it’s almost like a litmus test to prove that this is the right path to go on. And then you fall back into that trap of outcomes and impacts take a lot longer than you expect them to.
So, you know, when you do it on a smaller scale as an experiment, you’re not going to get that instantaneous gratification, to the board or the CEO or any of your leadership more often than not. So you’ve got to change that philosophy and that culture before you can actually be successful in changing over to outcomes and impacts, in my opinion.
[00:17:14] Will Sansbury: So, this might come as a shock to you, Tammy, but I might be slightly more optimistic than Amber on this particular topic.
[00:17:23] Amber Hansford: Shock!
[00:17:24] Will Sansbury: Because I agree in the ultimate conclusion, I don’t think you can really maximize the good you do for your customers if you don’t manage to kind of infect the entire organization with this thinking, but I do think you can build some momentum and you can, you can start to get better value out of what you are doing, even if just, and if you’re a product manager working with the scrum team, and you’ve got a group of folks that are shoulder to shoulder with you in the trenches, I think you can start to back up and make sure that the first thing you bring to your team is not, Hey, we need to build an XYZ widget, but it’s Hey, we have customers who are having this challenge. What can we do? And if you just start there, I think you can begin to build the momentum towards it.
The other thing I would say is there’s a lot of management fad things going on right now that you can, there are logical adjacencies to this, right? If you’ve got an executive who has suddenly become keenly interested in OKRs or V2MOMS because they’re going to solve all of our woes and get everybody, quote unquote, aligned, use it. Because you can’t do those sorts of strategy to execution frameworks without understanding the same concept. So you can, you can latch onto that and start to build some momentum there.
[00:18:44] Amber Hansford: I call it the parent trap of putting the kale in the smoothie. So I do agree with you on that level, Will, it’s just, you’ve gotta be able to, infect, to use your word. It’s a perfect word. You’ve got to be able to infect the folks who make this grassroots turn into something that the leadership at the minimum accepts if not actually believes in it just as much. And that’s the hard part.
[00:19:11] Will Sansbury: Yeah. And I think anybody trying to do this without somebody at the executive level who gets what you’re doing, values it, and is willing to do some blocking and tackling for you, Godspeed.
[00:19:23] Amber Hansford: Yeah.
[00:19:24] Will Sansbury: You’re, you’re in for a rough haul.
[00:19:25] Tammy Bulson: And I think at a minimum, we can be the kale to the smoothie, like Amber said, just by asking questions as product people. In my case, agile practitioners, anybody that’s out working in teams, trying to build great products. We can at least ask the questions like, Hey, if we hit this sprint goal, what does it mean for the customer and what does it mean for the business?
They’re good, healthy questions that will at least start that, Hey, if I’m going to be asked every single time, I’m going to start thinking about it proactively because these people keep asking me why and how we’re going to measure success. And maybe that’s one of the questions. How do we measure success once we put this thing out?
[00:20:08] Will Sansbury: Isn’t it funny that product managers have to learn that when your customer comes to you and says, I want X, you have to wind it back to what the actual problem is. And then we so often turn around and put it in front of the people working with us. I want X, so really what we need to do and what anybody can do, is just continue to unwind it, get it back to first principles, make sure that you understand to use the language of Simon Sinek, start with Why. Make sure you’ve got in the center of the bulls-eye, a clear understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish and why you’re doing it. And that’ll drive a lot of good, even if you don’t get all the way to perfect measurable outcomes and impact will still make what you’re building better.
[00:20:52] Amber Hansford: Yeah, you’ve just got to keep pushing the narrative of what benefit or what problem are we solving for the customer? Sometimes that’s like 90% of all you’re going to accomplish, but if you can accomplish that, that’s still Lightspeed ahead. Just plugging away. You got your JIRA ticket, move along.
[00:21:13] Tammy Bulson: That’s excellent. And, and you guys, this has been awesome conversation.
I know it’s about time for us to wrap up, so thanks so much for talking through this. I know that we’ve, we’ve also, um, come up with a couple of more topics to add for future podcasts.
If you’re interested in hearing more, or you have a topic that you’d like for us to cover, check us out at productoutsiders.com and find us on any podcast provider.
Stay Gold, Outsiders. Thanks for joining us.
[00:21:43] Amber Hansford: Stay Gold.
[00:22:13] Will Sansbury: Stay Gold.