Imagine a spectrum. On one end are vague requests, and on the other end are extremely specific requests.
A vague request is hard to work with because you have a big, overwhelming task ahead of you. One example of a vague request might be, “We need to be more productive.” There’s no theory of how to achieve the goal or what needs to be done.
A specific request can also be a problem for you because it's fixed – you don't know the wider context or what exactly is the problem you're trying to solve. A very specific request like, "We want a 25-minute gamified eLearning course" is an output-based request.
What you want to do is determine the desired outcome(s).
You may have heard people say that it’s important to be “outcome focused” but what exactly does it mean? What exactly is an outcome?
Outcomes - what are they?
An outcome is the change in the organization, employees, or customers that drives business results.
One of the best ways to describe outputs is through what's called a logic model. A Program Logic Model is made up of five components:
The work we do seeks to create Impact. In business, this could be a very high-level goal like increasing revenue, cutting costs, improving employee safety and wellbeing, enhancing brand image, and gaining market share.
Impact is too high-level to focus on as a goal because it's a very big, broad target.
So, we move one step back to outcomes. Again, outcomes are changes that drive the business result (impact). For example, if a business is seeking to increase revenue, one way of doing that is to increase sales of a particular product. Or if the aim is to reduce costs, the outcome could be something like simplifying the IT infrastructure to reduce subscription costs.
Outputs are what we create to achieve the outcome. They are the product of our activities. In L&D, this could be courses, performance support material, events, content, platforms, and anything else we're creating to achieve the outcome(s).
Activities are the tasks we do. It’s making the courses, performing analysis, designing graphics, writing, and more. It's what we do with the Inputs.
Inputs are the resources you will need: the people, money, assets, and tools. This can include communities, other areas of the organization that can help, groups of users, and data.
You can think of it this way:
We use resources (inputs) to do work (activities) that creates stuff (outputs) that will benefit people (outcome) in a way that creates change in the organization (impact).
Breaking your project into a program logic model gives you a visual map of what you're doing, what you need, and what you're aiming for. This can be a very strong way to communicate to a diverse range of people and fosters a shared understanding. It can also help you secure funding and budget your projects!
So, why focus on outcomes?
Outcomes help you think clearly about what you're doing and the reasons why. Defining an outcome is useful because you can sense-check with your stakeholders to make sure the goals of your projects are aligned with expectations.
They give you a common language to use with your stakeholders, your colleagues and the people you're designing for. You'll all be able to speak the same language because outcomes can take your conversations from being focused on learning or training to being about the organization and its goals.
Outcomes can shift the conversation from creating courses or training materials to one about business results. This helps you move away from being seen as 'the training team' to a valued business partner.
By focusing on outcomes instead of outputs or activities, you're enabling yourself to be more flexible. Outcomes allow you to experiment – they allow you to come up with multiple solutions for a problem. You don’t always have to default to training – you can come up with innovative ways to solve organizational issues.
They also help you test out different solutions and evaluate them against the outcome to see if they’re successful. If you measure using tasks or deliverables, you're only measuring when things get done, not the effect they have had.
Outcomes help your own learning. Because they help you experiment and evaluate, they allow you to learn from your successes and failures. Asking "Did this achieve the outcome?" helps you reflect on what did and didn't work and why. It's also useful for group reflection.
Ultimately, outcomes give you a 'North Star'. When determining a solution you can use the outcome(s) to validate where you should be spending your time and energy. Planning a project becomes more focused as you can weed out anything that isn't going to help your project.