Outcomes Over Outputs

Learn about the difference between outputs and outcomes.

Projects have a fixed ending, while products are ongoing and focus on achieving a goal rather than creating a specific thing. By extension, project managers are responsible for completing an initiative within a specific timeframe, budget, and scope. Product managers are in charge of the overall strategy, delivery, and relationships with other areas that are needed to reach a goal. Why would we favor one over the other? What are the circumstances that make one a better fit than the other? Several factors can inform using one instead of the other. Let’s start with a look at outputs and outcomes.

What's the difference?

It is important to understand the difference between outcomes and outputs because they serve different purposes in the product management process. Outputs refer to the tangible things that come from a project, such as products or services developed. Outcomes are the results of those projects. In the following image, which illustrates the example of toy blocks, the creation of wooden cubes with letters printed on them represents the outputs. They are what has been created. The result of that work—happy children who are busy playing—is the outcome, or the goal that creating the output serves.

Output = blocks and outcome = happy children
Output = blocks and outcome = happy children

Outputs are sometimes villainized as work for the sake of work, but that assessment is unfair. Outputs allow product managers to track progress throughout the life cycle of a project. They provide concrete evidence of what has been achieved and can be used as proof points when communicating progress.

Outcomes, conversely, look at impact rather than simply tracking progress. They focus on the result and can be used to measure success or failure when it comes to the achievement of objectives. Outputs are more easily demonstrated and measured. They are also the chief goal of projects (getting something done, rather than influencing user behavior). Outcomes, not outputs, are nearly always the measure of interest for product managers. They can be difficult to measure directly (how can we know that a customer is happier, or more engaged?) and typically rely on signals of success or failure, called success or fail metrics, respectively.

Understanding outputs and outcomes allows for clear communication and alignment of expectations between the product team and stakeholders. By defining the tangible outputs and desired outcomes, the team can ensure that they are working towards specific, measurable goals and can demonstrate the value of their work to stakeholders. Additionally, understanding the relationship between outputs and outcomes can aid in decision-making during the product development process, because the team can consider the potential impact of different choices on the desired outcome. Understanding outputs and outcomes enables the team to evaluate the success of a product or project, as they can measure whether the desired outcomes have been achieved. This helps them to identify areas for improvement and make adjustments for future projects.

Below are some example outputs and outcomes, to help you learn the distinction between them:

Example outputs

  1. A software application
  2. A presentation
  3. A user manual
  4. Technical documentation
  5. Design documents
  6. Marketing materials
  7. Training materials
  8. A website
  9. Video content
  10. Social media content
  11. Brand guidelines
  12. Prototype or mockup

Example outcomes

  1. Increased customer satisfaction
  2. Higher sales revenue
  3. Improved user engagement
  4. Increased market share
  5. Reduced costs
  6. Increased efficiency
  7. Greater brand awareness
  8. Improved customer retention
  9. Increased customer loyalty
  10. New business opportunities
  11. Increased profitability
  12. Reduced environmental impact

Which should we focus on?

Outputs and outcomes are both tools for product managers to check progress and make informed decisions. Outputs provide immediate value by showing development progress. Outcomes paint a bigger picture by showing the wider impact of projects on customers and stakeholders. With both output and outcome data, product teams can make well-informed decisions based on data-driven insights.

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We defined product management as the process of managing product success throughout the product lifecycle. It ensures companies can identify customer needs and build products that provide value. That pursuit of value, by definition, means that we are doing something more than creating. We are influencing behaviors and shifting moods and emotions. We are helping people get more work done, helping them make more money and any number of other things. The job is about objectives and in this context that means outcomes over outputs most of the time. This is one of the advantages of applying a product management approach to building a companies' next big thing.

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To summarize, by focusing on both outputs, such as development progress, and outcomes, such as the impact on customers and stakeholders, product teams can make well-informed decisions based on data-driven insights. This helps to ensure that products provide value to customers and meet their needs. Additionally, product management is not just about creating products, but also about achieving objectives and influencing behaviors and emotions. This broader perspective allows for an integrated approach to product development, and can lead to greater success for the product and the company.

Quiz

Quiz yourself on outcomes and outputs.

1

What are outcomes focused on?

A)

How quickly work is being accomplished

B)

Measuring progress towards the objectives behind the work being done

C)

Measuring delivery of the work scope

D)

Planning the work scope against the stated objectives

Question 1 of 40 attempted