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Process Goals vs Outcome Goals

Having a clear business objective is great, but without a strategy and a process to help you get there, what are your chances of success?

Having a clear business objective is great, but without a strategy and a process to help you get there, what are your chances of success?

By Roderic Yapp, Leadership Consultant

It’s fascinating how inspiration can strike you at any moment of the day, isn’t it?

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast with a running coach while I was running (no prizes for guessing what I like to do with my spare time). Suddenly, I was struck by what the coach had to say about the difference between Outcome Goals and Process Goals. Are we too focused on Outcome Goals in business today? I wondered. How many organisations even have any Process Goals at all?

If you’re wondering what the difference is, let me give you the context of what the coach had to say. He was talking about taking part in a punishing trail running ultramarathon called the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. You might have heard of it, but if not, just know that it covers 171km and the trail rises as high as 10,000 metres as runners run around Mont Blanc, starting in France and passing through Italy to end their race in Switzerland.  

As a runner, you can’t enter the race unless you qualify via a series of preparatory ultramarathons. Earning enough points from taking part in those wins you the opportunity to enter the Mont Blanc race.

The running coach was asked what his goal was for the race. His answer is what got my attention.

Focus on what you can control

“I don’t have an outcome goal for this,” he said. He wanted to finish as high up as possible, he added, but, bottom line, he couldn’t confidently predict he would finish in the top three. If there were three other runners who had a better day than him, they would beat him. It was as simple as that.

He couldn’t control the outcome, so he didn’t dwell on it. Instead, as he explained, he would focus on the daily controllables that he needed to do to achieve as good a time as he was capable of.

To cut to the chase, he explained that he was strictly controlling his diet. The better the quality of food he consumed, the faster he could recover after training, and the more he could push himself. As he explained, drinking the odd beer now and then was fine, but if he chose to drink six or seven points one evening three months before the race, then those competitors who weren’t doing that would then get an edge on him.

“He couldn’t control the outcome, so instead he would focus on the daily controllables.”

He also talked about training and exercise of course, but the second really big controllable he discussed was sleep. He was training himself to get to bed earlier, by putting away devices by a certain time, having a set evening routine, and taking time to read and depressurise from the day before trying to turn in.

Each of these processes – sleep, training, and diet – are controllable processes that maximise performance. Yet at the same time, although this man would prepare in every way he could, the outcome was still not assured.

Most organisations are run with Outcome Goals in mind

Don’t we sometimes get this the wrong way round in business? Most organisations are run with outcome goals in mind. A sales team has a revenue target, to give an obvious and clear example. Yet how often do sales organisations think about or focus on the processes – those little daily habits that compound every day to drive us to success?

“This approach creates huge amounts of stress and pressure and can undermine performance.”

They very often just leave people to get on with it and hit the target as best they can. I’m not saying this is necessarily the right or wrong way to go about things, but I do think this approach creates huge amounts of stress and pressure for individuals and can undermine performance.

Even the training of the ultramarathon runner offers lessons for us. They’ll compete in smaller marathons and trail runs, putting in perhaps 80% of the full effort they’ll give the main race. But they’re testing a new pair of shoes, or the impact of a dietary variation, or a new nutrition gel. They’re using these training exercises to test different variables.

This is another aspect that’s often missing in the business world. Outside of the rarefied corridors of Google, how often do we hear of organisations experimenting with new ideas and techniques to improve their processes and help them hit their targets?

Not everyone thinks about how they’re going to hit their targets

This question actually puts me in mind of a book written by Tony Blair’s former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, called Winners and How They Succeed. Drawn from interviews with and analysis of towering achievers such as Nelson Mandela, Gary Kasparov, Richard Branson, Michael Phelps, Angela Merkel, Tiger Woods, and many more, Campbell boils down the common denominators for success in any field to just three factors:

  1. Objective. What is it you’re trying to make reality? What is it you’re trying to change or do? That needs to be clear and crisp.
  2. Strategy. What’s your overarching plan to reach your objective? In the case of the trail running, the overarching strategy is the combination of the training plan, diet plan, and sleep plan.  
  3. Tactics. Daily behaviours or actions you can control that will deliver the strategy that will deliver the objective. In the case of the trail running again, this would be the meal preparation, the eating the right things at the right times, the discipline to stay on track, and so on.

Everyone in the corporate world gets the objectives point, but not everyone thinks about the strategy, and even fewer about the tactics. If I was running a P&L, I wouldn’t want to come up with the objective until I’d had a think about how I was going to get from A to B. I could underestimate or overestimate the objective by a factor of ten! I don’t know what’s achievable until I’ve thought about what’s realistic based on the amount of time I’ve got, the relationships, the resources, the skills, and other variables.

Are you asking enough questions? Are you looking outside of your industry for inspiration?

So if this idea of focusing on Process Goals has captured your imagination as it did mine, or you worry about not having the processes you need to hit your targets for this year, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What are your versions of diet/sleep/exercise?
  • What does your training plan look like?

Lastly, if you really want to find those golden nuggets of insight that will supercharge your career, your company, or your industry, don’t limit yourself to looking at your world or industry. Look outside to see what others are doing. I got this moment of insight from a podcast on trail running and it’s really made me think about Process Goals vs Outcome Goals, and whether many organisations need to rethink the way they look at these.

Look outside of your traditional domain and look for other examples and ask why they works. How could they apply to your industry or your company? This will transform the quality of your insights, and the conversations you have with your teams and your colleagues.