Do You Want Leaders or Followers?

A Focus on Output is Teaching People to Stop Thinking for Themselves

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I generally don’t like being told what to do. It started during my childhood and continued into my professional life. Although my defiance wasn’t always popular with teachers, I am not a rebel who has problems with authority. Neither was it anything to do with laziness. Only quite recently, I finally realised what triggers this defiant feeling in me: I can’t stand being told what to do when I don’t understand why I’m supposed to do it.

This same feeling triggered the professional allergy I have developed toward output-oriented work. My definition of output-oriented work is “work focused on creating deliverables — output — without taking into account the changes in behaviour — the outcome — that those deliverables are supposed to create.”

Some signs that you may be filling up your time with “output-oriented” work include:

A prevalence of “one size fits all” bureaucratic processes like checklists, stage gates, and templates.

At first sight, such practices may appear to be innocent and efficient. They were probably introduced with good intentions, wanting to provide some structure and oversight. However, they can quickly snowball into dispiriting and bureaucratic monsters.

What’s more, such “one size fits all” bureaucratic practices shift the focus from the customer to the internal organisation. When work is dominated by creating output and jumping through organisational hoops, who is focusing on the outcomes your product is supposed to create? Of course, you need output to achieve outcome, but the point is that the outcome should always be the main priority and focus.

An exaggerated focus on long-term and detailed feature roadmaps.

As Eisenhower stated, “Plans are nothing, planning is everything”. Whilst I fully agree that the act of planning is extremely valuable, the level of confidence of such a long-term plan is often highly overestimated. As this meme intelligently states, estimates — which are inherently uncertain — are too easily treated as exact deadlines.

Secondly, whilst features are important, they don’t say anything about the outcome or value that you want to achieve. Or, even more importantly, how you are going to measure the value so that you can use this data to make better decisions in the future.

An obsession with output-oriented metrics, like test cases completed or sprint velocity.

The truth is that their value is limited. I would find it more useful to know whether the completed test cases are the ones with the most business value, or whether the sprint goal was met. On top of this, people often fail to understand that many of these metrics can be gamed or manipulated. For instance, I can increase the estimate for a story or I can complete the easy test cases first. By overtly focusing on these metrics, you are implicitly driving this behaviour and making those metrics even less useful.

However, my biggest gripe is that an output-oriented approach teaches people to stop thinking for themselves. It creates an organisation of followers where the desire to understand and solve problems is impeded by a strong emphasis on outputs like templates, deliverables, and timelines. What’s worse, an output-oriented approach destroys motivation, creativity, and innovation. It stops organisations from producing real value for their customers and will eventually lead to inferior products and a loss of market share.

It is time for organisations to start recognising the detrimental impact of output-oriented work and to start focusing on defining and achieving outcome. Believe me, the successful ones already have.

Fascinated by digital transformation, working with agile teams and building great products.