I’ve been in higher education for 15 years, but it’s only over the last year or so that I’ve become interested in the difference between outputs and outcomes. Outputs are certainly important to any company, but they’re not the end goal; they’re stepping stones that get you to outcomes.
What do I mean by that? Let’s start by defining what outputs and outcomes are. An output is something produced by a person, machine or industry, typically defined quantitatively. An outcome, on the other hand, is usually qualitative. It’s a consequence.
In higher education, outputs are typically easy to measure: enrollment growth, retention and graduation rates, job placement rates, salaries five and 10 years after graduation and so forth. The outcomes are much harder to measure, though. To do so, we must ask questions like, “Are we producing servant leaders?” or “Are our graduates becoming productive citizens?” or “Are our graduates happy?” Occasionally, you see outcomes in a university’s mission statement, but it’s rare for a university to align all of its strategies and goals toward measuring and producing desired outcomes.
Finding the Distinction
I recently watched a talk by Wil Reynolds about this distinction. He gave several interesting examples that I want to share with you.
When two people get married, it’s easy to think of the marriage as the outcome. There’s a commitment between two people and a big party with lots of happy friends and relatives. But is that the outcome? Reynolds suggests that it’s not. The wedding ceremony, the “I do’s” and the accompanying pomp and circumstance are all outputs of the event, but the outcome everyone’s hoping for is the couple’s ability to live happily together, raise children, survive the ups and downs that inevitably come with any marriage, and learn to compromise and respect each other.
Reynolds’ wife runs a nonprofit that builds water filtration systems in Nicaragua. Whenever the nonprofit completes one, the organization celebrates and takes pictures of the accomplishment. But the filtration system is the output, not the outcome. The outcomes are people drinking clean water, healthier children and crops that grow better.
Benjamin Franklin, at age 20, had already developed a system of outputs and outcomes: his 13 virtues. He planned his day meticulously, creating time for breakfast, work, reflecting, getting enough sleep and so forth. Each of these little accomplishments throughout the day was an output. The outcomes, in this case, were what he was working toward, his 13 virtues: temperance, silence, frugality, sincerity and so on.
Putting It Into Practice
According to Reynolds, knowing what outcome you’re trying to achieve is important, too. He says that anyone can beat Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, in a 100-meter dash. On the surface, this seems ridiculous; but what if Bolt “bolts” in the wrong direction for five seconds? If you know where you’re going, what your desired outcome is, you can beat him. It’s not just about being fast (the output), it’s about understanding your desired outcome and working toward it.
It’s taken a lot of thought, mentorship and self-discovery to separate the outcomes I am looking for from outputs, especially ones that look nice on a wall, like an award or credential. Just today, I read a great quote by Marcus Aurelius: “It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”
I know that, personally, I’ve been confusing outcomes and outputs for most of my life. Whether I was chasing that shiny credential, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, admittance into an Ivy League school, the Chartered Financial Analyst designation or completion of an Ironman, many of my goals were outputs. I’m definitely proud of having achieved them, but what I’m coming to realize is that they’re a means to an end, not the end itself.
It’s easy to confuse outputs for outcomes. But, just as you’d do if you were racing Usain Bolt, the important thing is to know where you’re going. You’ll achieve a lot of outputs along the way, but knowing what outcomes you’re working toward is, as the saying goes, half the battle.
What outcomes are you working toward? When in your life do you remember confusing an output for an outcome?