Outcome vs Output: Achieve Powerful Results as a Digital Product Manager

“The job of a product manager is to discover a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible.”

It’s easy to list off the challenges of a product manager, but it’s harder to find ways to make product manager positions more productive. Most of the time, product managers are struggling to make sure their projects are on time and on budget. They face many challenges; including insufficient resources and meeting tight deadlines. These blockers lead them to take measures that focus on delivering a number of features or code, checking items off a to-do list, and causes them to spend less on the value being provided by the work done, the real measure of success.

Instead of measuring outputs if you’re a product manager, try to measure outcomes. This shift in focus helps us eliminate the habit of quantifying features production. The systems that digital product teams are building are complex and need to be closely managed, constantly optimized and refined. The number of features delivered is irrelevant to the process. It’s actually the impact of the code that truly indicates the value being delivered. Rather than simply checking the boxes, product managers need to be asking themselves did we put something into the world that customers love?

What’s the difference between Outcome vs Output?

From the time we’re kids, we learn to focus on outputs rather than outcomes. Think about it— in school, we are told focus on test results rather than learning how to apply that knowledge in the world. As digital project managers, we need to challenge that learned thinking and give ourselves new targets and methods to evaluate our meaning and labor.

First, let’s define the difference between outputs and outcomes:

  • Outputs are the things beings produced, whether they are physical or virtual. Think of it as ‘The What’. “What are you producing?”
  • Outcomes, on the other hand, are the value and the difference provided by the outputs. Think of it as “The Why’. “Why will it benefit your customer?”

For example, a lifejacket would be an output, and the outcome is safety for consumers in the water.

To understand a customer’s needs, it’s best to put yourself in their position. How can your customers benefit from the product you are creating? What solutions will provide them with valuable outcomes?

Difference between Product Development and Manufacturing

A lot of companies treat the product development process exactly like manufacturing; however, the two are very different. Manufacturing implies you how to create the product, meaning that many tasks are predictable and repetitive, and you know what the final product will look like. In this case, creating more stuff with fewer defects is a great approach. For a product development strategy though, digital product managers need to take a different approach. Requirements change frequently, tasks are unique, the code needs to be maintained, and customers can change the way they use the products we create. In this case, the quantity of code being delivered, even if it is “bug-free”, does not determine the value being provided to the customer.

Often, we won’t know whether the product we are creating will work until we are done. This uncertainty, combined with the nature of software, means that managing projects, based on outputs, is not an effective strategy in the digital world. Despite this, our management culture, as well as our tools, are set up to emphasize output.

Measuring Success

In order to measure the real success of a product, we need to talk about outcomes, not just output. And as the world continues to digitize, almost every product and service becomes more driven by (or at least integrated with) software, forcing this area to grow even stronger.

For example, a client might ask you to create an app for them. Their goal might be to sell more products on mobile. You can create the app, make it easy to use, and deliver it on time and on budget, but it may not achieve the client’s goal, which is to sell more products on mobile. In this case, the project is “done”. The app is the output. But the executive outcome, selling more products on mobile, has not been achieved.

Think about all the apps you have on your smartphone or tablet. How many do you constantly use? And how many actually improve your life?

Conclusion

The human-centered focus is the way we do things at Nolte. Outcomes are how we humanize our products. They help digital project managers measure customer behavior, which tells us if we have found the right combination of code, copy, and design to make a successful product. Outcomes can be measured using analytics tools, and create real results for clients and customers. Contrast this accomplishment to output, which is simply checking the boxes without meeting any client goals, while failing to create an impactful product.

By managing our teams in a way that specifies the outcomes we seek, we can fundamentally change the way we think about productivity, and product management. I recommend setting expectations, allowing the plan to be adjusted during the process, and empowering your team to reach goals and outcomes in whatever way they think is the best. Quality outcomes help teams avoid building products customers don’t want, and encourages them to create the kind of products that improve peoples’ lives, and change how we experience the world.

Let’s come up with more and better ways to measure outcomes. What strategies do you use with your team to help accomplish outcomes?