Inputs versus Outputs

There’s a time to measure both. But how do you know?

There’s plenty of “folk wisdom” (read: hogwash) to push you towards either side. “The ends justify the means” or “if it works, it ain’t stupid” or any number of other sayings can push you to the idea that only the end result matters, not how you got there. Meanwhile, “one step at a time” and “trust the process” and sayings like those will tell you that you don’t have to worry about the destination at all, just the journey.

Which is the better philosophy?

I’m a big believer in “action goals,” but there’s a HUGE caveat that I’ll get to at the end. When you’re trying to produce tangible results of any kind, whether that’s a personal goal, business product, or anything else with measurable results, in many ways it really is just the end product that counts. Success is measured in those outputs, and people rarely see behind the curtain anyway. So why does the journey itself matter so much, as long as we get where we’re going?

The First Reason: Health. Not just your physical health, but the health of your overall project. Using physical health as an example, though: Let’s say you were 40 pounds overweight, and you drop those 40 pounds. Great, right? But it matters how you got there! If you dropped 40 pounds because you started using cocaine and throwing up your meals, that’s not good. Not only are the negative side effects worse than the positive impact of losing the weight, but even the weight loss isn’t sustainable unless you maintain activities that are killing you. If you have to deliver a software solution for a client, who cares if the code is horrible and you cut corners on process documentation as long as the end result works for the client? No one… until something breaks, and it’s impossible to fix. Outputs are good, but a house of cards always tumbles eventually.

The Second Reason: Scaling. When tinkering with a problem and finding a solution, my father would always ask, “Okay, but can we repeatabilize it?” That funny made-up word carried immediate meaning, though: Is this solution something we can do again, easily? Have we discovered a stable solution to the problem, or have we just slapped duct tape on it? The ability to take a process and scale it up or adapt it to slightly different scenarios is very powerful, and creates a significantly more valuable success than just the one short-term output.

The Third Reason: Sharing. I don’t believe in “secret knowledge.” If I can do something, I want other people to learn it. Most of my career has been centered around sharing techniques in one way or another, and I love doing it. So if I figure out a way to do something that works well, I’m not trying to horde that knowledge. The world gets better as we learn from each other. But in order to share my knowledge of how to solve a particular problem, I have to actually know how I solved it. That introspection is key.

Those are my big three reasons why I care deeply about the “how” and not just the end result. It can be easy to mock buzzwords like “metrics” and “KPIs” but they’re important. As long as

(Here’s the aforementioned HUGE caveat!)

you know that they actually get you where you want to go.

When you’re setting Action Goals, I subscribe to the idea that it’s best to decide the steps that take you towards your goal, but then ignore the end goal and focus on the individual steps. But that only works if the steps are correct! If I say, “I want to lose 40 pounds, so every day I’m going to drink a chocolate milkshake,” then focusing on the action steps isn’t going to get me where I want to go. I’ve set bad steps.

You do have to start with the goal in mind, and you have to do your homework – serious consideration of how you can break that action goal down into real steps that will get you there. You have to have reasonable confidence, either from your own experience or consulting with experts, that your steps will get you to your goal.

Here’s the nice thing: If you succeed once, and you cared about the process, then you have information that will give you even better action steps next time. You’ll have an iterative process that can improve over time. But if you have no idea how you got there, then… well, then you can’t repeatabilize your success.

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