The Outcomes that Matter

Let’s start with the personal. I had an operation last year, after which the symptoms that were the reason for the operation got worse. The surgeon still regards the operation as a success because she did something (possibly the wrong something) technically well. Which outcome do you think matters most – patient health or a surgeon’s pride in their technical skill?

Then, in a recent news article, the CEO of a government agency refused to answer whether executives would shortly receive performance bonuses. Because of very inadequate government support, the organization laid off professional staff who were essential to its mission and closed local services knowing that action harms mission achievement. But she said “well, performance measures are being met.” What success measures could matter more than harming the mission? Can you think of any?

It was clear she intended, or hoped, to use a chunk of the very limited funding to increase executive compensation.

I have seen far too many senior managers rewarded for cutting front line staff and paying less than living wages. Sometimes a workforce reduction can’t be avoided, but I cannot imagine any ethical reduction of program and service staff that does not include at least an equivalent savings at the executive level through layoffs and pay cuts.

So, I challenge my readers to look at the key measurements in the organizations they lead or advise. If you have direct beneficiaries who can be consulted, have you asked their opinion about what matters? They won’t know about the internal capacity issues you’ve addressed, but don’t you want to know their views on the external outcomes? If you are trying to change lives, did their lives change, by how much and what impact did those changes have? How does that impact relate to the impact that would have been most important to them?

Suggestion: Have at least two external key success measures for every one internal. When planning or reporting, start with the external. The internal stuff isn’t important unless it helps create impacts that matter.

If you don’t serve individuals you can consult, can you identify proxy people or organizations you can learn from? Ensure they truly speak for the values of your beneficiaries. In my first board, I learned that parents and caregivers of young people with disabilities put safety first, but the young people cared more about being challenged and having opportunities to learn and practice new skills. The organization would have done better if it had worked harder and more patiently to communicate directly with young people with disabilities. If you exist for nature (nature that humans are an integral part of, not nature just to serve people), there may not be agreement on who can speak for the trees, birds, water and land. 

IMHO, Indigenous engagement and decision-making processes work FAR better than western ones for this and many other situations.

What has already come to mind about an impact you are missing? Or a measurement that no longer seems meaningful? How are you going to raise that issue and with who? 

Be prepared for push-back because the most important outcomes often take longer to manifest and are harder to measure. And the current impacts (often, sadly, outputs rather than even badly described outcomes) are built into current data collection and performance reviews. You probably can’t even set targets because you have to first gather enough information to have a starting benchmark.

But as a volunteer, staff member, donor or community member, it IS worth the trouble to achieve outcomes that matter. It’s an old saying but “what gets measured gets done” remains valid. And organizations that can’t get what matters done need to get out of the way so resources can go to those that can.

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