What focusing on outcomes should mean

by Caroline Oliver

The idea that organisations should be focused on “what really matters” and that “what really matters” is outcomes has become a commonplace.  The problem is however that there is no shortage of possible outcomes that any given organisation can pursue.  How does your organisation decide which are the right outcomes? 

Here is my suggestion:   

·         The right outcomes are those that clarify an organisation’s reason for existence; as legitimised by the people to whom the organisation’s board is ultimately accountable.

John Carver1 has used the term “Ends” to describe such outcomes and proposed that they should form that section of board policy that is used to set an organisation’s strategic direction.  The concept that underlies his term “Ends” is that “what really matters” is not just any old outcomes about any old thing, but outcomes that speak to differences in people’s lives and the actual and relative value of those differences.

In other words, John Carver’s concept is that organisations do not exist in order to raise funds, expand their premises, balance budgets, upgrade their technology or in any other way to seek to perpetuate themselves.  Organisations exist to provide specific benefits to specific beneficiaries at a specific worth. 

The advantages of recognising this fact in the development of outcomes for strategic direction are fourfold.  Firstly, you avoid the danger that by pursuing non-Ends outcomes you will “shoot yourselves in the foot” by, for example:

·         Setting fundraising, budgeting and programming outcomes that prove to be a waste of resources because the underlying purpose was unclear.

·         Setting outcomes for accommodation and IT capabilities that meet immediate needs but decrease capacity for meeting longer-term needs.

The second advantage of recognising the need to distinguish between “Ends” and other types of outcomes is that it enables you to ensure that everyone and everything is pointing in the same direction.  With a clear board statement of Ends, it doesn’t matter if you are engaged in fundraising, budgeting, service delivery, accommodation maintenance or designing IT, everything you all do will be geared to producing the same outcomes for the same people with the same priority.   Without a clear board statement of Ends, everyone is left hoping that what they are doing is on the right track but never being able to say for sure.

The third benefit to be derived from untangling “Ends” from other types of outcomes is that, because they are derived from thinking about the reason for your organisation’s existence, they inevitably provide a long-term focus thus enabling the short-term to be kept in its proper perspective.  How many boards have lived (or indeed not lived) to regret that they had not done just that?

The fourth benefit is that setting “Ends” in terms of specific outcomes for specific people at a specific worth enables organisations to assess their effectiveness overall as well as the effectiveness of the individual approaches that they may be using at any time to help them deliver those outcomes.  If the right outcome is well-read children, spending money on on-line library searching technology may not be the right approach.  If the right outcome is best possible health outcomes for all patients, insisting that every patient is seen within x hours of arrival, may not be the right approach.  And, if you have not expressed your desired outcomes and their relative priority in these very clear terms, you will have no means of being able to assess if any approach you are taking is the right one or not.

So, having outcomes really does matter for leading organisations towards success.   However what also matters is that they really do define success.  If they are the right kinds of outcomes they will make a real difference in people’s lives.  If they are not they will just keep our organisations continually and “Endlessly” busy. 



1 See for example: Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations, by John Carver, Jossey-Bass Publishers Inc. 1990, 1997 and 2006.


© Caroline Oliver, November 2010