ArticleNovember 9, 2023 · 5 min read time
Outcome orientation is a significant trend in product leadership, and we're constantly encouraged to focus on outcomes. In this article series, I explain five mind tricks that consistently get your brain and team thinking about outcomes. The first four mind tricks are both proven and easy to teach. This last one is not easy but will take an outcome-oriented mindset to the structures of your organisation.
Each article discusses one mind trick:
Insist that customer value happens before business value
The fifth trick brings the change from outputs to outcomes into the structures of the company bit by bit. It starts with changing the language, reinforcing a laser-sharp focus on customer value. By structures, I mean the policies, processes, documentation, and rules of the company. Structure is what codifies and often writes out "what is the right way" to work in the company.
Let other people teach the message of outcome orientation forward. Here's your challenge.
Substitute output-heavy words with outcomes
Here's a small list of my favourite substitutions. I seem to have trained my brain to notice easily common output-heavy words. What follows usually is a persuasive discussion where I encourage the team to change the word into something else.
I often ask: Could we change the word "deliverables" to customer outcomes? That would better reflect how we are trying to start from the customer's needs. If we changed that, the meeting participants could better focus on the right starting points.
The list goes something like the following. You get the pattern quickly.
1. Deliverables -> customer outcomes
2. Scope -> customer and/or business outcomes
3. Value -> customer and/or business outcomes
4. Impact -> customer and/or business outcomes
5. Goals -> customer and/or business outcomes
6. Benefit -> customer and/or business outcomes
7. Value hypothesis -> outcome hypothesis
8. Value proposition -> customer outcomes and proposed solution
The pattern is quite simple. We target the words that refer to artifacts, deliverables, impacts, customer outcomes, or business outcomes. The problem is that the words are ambiguous in the daily use of language. Take, for instance, "scope". There is no way for a person to know where the discussion should focus on technical deliverables or impacts or something else altogether. Too often, the old habit kicks in, and we start to talk about outputs and solutions. We are simply trying to establish starting with customer outcomes by using unambiguous terms.
Language police vs. Helping people find the frame
I appreciate that you might feel like a language police while introducing a new language. Being the police is not the point. Instead, you are helping people adopt the outcome frame and viewpoint. Outcome orientation can be viewed as a habit that makes us always start from the customer outcome. The behaviour counts, and the words are the cue.
The term outcome is very far from being established in the general industry. On the contrary, we are frontrunners in our outcome-thinking crowd. That's why I regularly use "differentiated customer value" to invoke the thinking frame with business people. The three words together usually trigger people to think about customer outcomes. With technical people, I use the longer form "customer outcome" rather than "outcome," even though it is longer. The extra word customer just directs the discussion to the right starting point.
Good use of language gets ideas transferred more quickly. As they say, adapt communication to match the audience.
Gradually going for the governance
The following steps take being a language police to new heights in scale of impact and difficulty of convincing.
Level one – Change facilitation of a workshop or meeting
Pay extra attention to the next meeting or workshop that you are hosting. Use explicit framing and vocabulary around outcomes. Make it great.
The participants will tell it forward. The message of outcome orientation spreads a bit.
Level two – Change the process of a single team
Work with your team and make the outcomes the cornerstone of your team cycle. The team members will onboard new members and teach outcome orientation to newcomers.
Demonstrable outcomes also get fame in the company. Again, the message of outcome orientation spreads a bit more.
Level three – Change how projects and teams are chartered
The third step is to take the change all the way to the structures of how "work works" in the company. It is a huge step ahead as now you need to work with the larger organisation. You will likely need to convince many managers of outcome orientation and its merits. You will teach and explain what the new way is and why it is better than the old way of doing things. There will be change resistance and old tradition to fight off.
The goal is to change how teams, projects, and programs are chartered: how goals are articulated and progress and success are measured. We replace words of scope, deliverables, and benefits with an outcome-oriented mandate. When you start changing the mandate, you notice its effects rippling into reporting and portfolio management, to name two first dependent changes.
Luckily, and with careful iteration, even large-scale changes can be made in bits. Again, the exact word is not the point - the thinking model and frame are. If you succeed in convincing people to make the switches, then you can say you've made it.
The management will now hold people accountable for trying to get to outcomes. And the management will need to learn the new way, too. This is how the message of outcome orientation becomes part of the structure.
An article series on outcomes
This blog is the last one in a series of five articles investigating how to adopt an outcome-oriented mindset and apply it to our daily work.
Want to know more about practical outcome orientation and how to use it to create valuable and successful products?
The methods discussed in this five-part article series form the backbone of the Nitor Product Ownership training, which we have built to help you take on and thrive in the Product Owner role. This practical training gives you the skills and confidence to work as a product owner, which is the hardest and the most crucial role for the success of an agile organisation.