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Outcomes? We’re Programmed to Get into the Weeds

Published: February 18, 2017

In response to my post on feature factories, a friend asked…

How do I keep the team focused on outcomes?Me: I’m guessing you do some kind of kick-off. At a certain point the conversation shifts away from outcomes. Teams transition from talking about outcomes to talking about tasks, phases, deliverables, and solutions. Our day-to-day work centers around execution. What did you do yesterday? What is on your plate today? Are we blocked? Are we on track? When can we ship? When can we start on the next project?

None of this is inherently bad. This is what humans do … we break things down into mini-projects and check things off of our list. After thinking briefly about the *why *and *who, *we jump quickly to the *how *and *what. *The problem is that we’re only exercising one muscle, and we stop asking questions. We get stuck in the weeds. The team can outsource this thinking to a PM or business stakeholder, but this weakens the muscle further.

Shipping feels good. Merging a PR feels good. Knowing what your next couple weeks will look like feels good. Getting the deliverable to a downstream team member feels good. And because this stuff feels good, it tends to be what we optimize around. This holds true in especially tense and political environments as well. Being able to say “we delivered on what you asked for” will never get you into trouble, and it might be all that you can control.

In my experience, seeing that your work actually had impact rules the day and feels VERY good. But in lieu of that, people want to feel (pretty) good. They certainly don’t want to feel threatened, judged, or set up to fail.

Staying focused on outcomes is incredibly difficult, and often uncomfortable. So is experimentation. Though it is popular to talk about experiments, I rarely hear people tell me about *failed *experiment. Heck, in many organizations simply getting *anything *done — let alone anything done quickly enough to iterate and/or reflect on outcomes — is very challenging.

My point is that 1) we spend most of our time in the weeds, 2) it is comfortable (and maybe even safer) in the weeds, 3) you need to get into the weeds to get stuff done, 4) we structure our orgs (and work) around most people being in the weeds, most of the time, and 5) the slower we move, the more time we end up in the weeds. This is what you’re up against when trying to take an outcome-focused approach. I’ve fallen into the trap of underestimating just how deep these currents run.

You have to make a big concerted effort!

  • Make it safe to move quickly, receive feedback quickly, and change course quickly
  • Make it safe to set goals and miss the mark
  • Celebrate outcomes (not simply shipping), and celebrate learning
  • Align teams around missions/outcomes, not ship dates
  • Express your roadmap in terms of missions/outcomes (not features)
  • Spend time talking about and reviewing outcomes with your team
  • Describe your work in terms of desired outcomes
  • Get rid of tools that make it hard to see the “big picture” … basically, be disciplined in the face of the overwhelming tendency to do otherwise. Create rituals to keep you grounded. Dedicate time. Exercise the muscle.