Outputs and Outcomes

Let’s talk about failing.

I had a very interesting conversation with a colleague this week about focusing on outcomes vs outputs.

It’s a popular conversation these days. It usually starts as a question on whether our focus should be on the outputs – which directly affect the outcome – or on the outcomes which direct the outputs.

It seems like a “chicken and egg” discussion, but ultimately conventional wisdom is that great strategy starts with the outcomes as a core focus, and should influence the outputs on which we put our attention.

In content strategy we often talk about this because there is so often a mismatch in what we measure as success. So many businesses measure the outputs of content (how many blog posts, white papers, e-Books etc..) are produced, rather than the outcomes – or impact – of that content.

But, the interesting thing to me are those times when we get it wrong – the intended outcome. And by “get it wrong”, I don’t mean the warm and fuzzy type of failure like “the content didn’t produce the quota of leads”, or “we didn’t get the SEO bump we expected.”

Rather, I mean those trip and crack your skull type failures. I mean The Last Airbender movie level of fail. I mean “Richard-Nixon-saying-a-tape-recorder-in-his-office-is-a-good-idea” level of failure.

When I was having the conversation with my colleague about outcomes and outputs it was this level of failure we were discussing.  They had recently put together a thought leadership campaign to drive awareness of their ideas and brand. The project had failed spectacularly.  Without going into too much detail, let’s just say there were memes of their #Fail going around in their industry. The campaign turned into a joke. The outputs had definitely NOT created the outcomes they desired.

My colleague felt defeated – and was feeling lost, not only about the outcomes they’d hoped for, but for any future outputs they might be working on.     

Whenever failure rears its head, we may feel hopeless and start to withdraw. We may get angry, and blame others. We may disassociate ourselves from whatever comes next. “It’s not my problem,” we say. “I didn’t do this. Somebody else made it happen. I’m ignoring it.” And we withdraw and stop creating outputs altogether.

But we must do the opposite. Keep moving. Take steps. One foot after the other.

In our content and marketing strategies, we often talk about beginning with the outcomes in mind. We envision success and then work backward, creating a grand map. We plot the outputs. We’re good at this. We know that this process works.

In the face of disempowering failure, though, this process can seem beyond our reach. If we can’t even imagine what the outcome will look like, how can we plot the steps to get ourselves there?

Try this. Simply ask, “Now what?”

Do something. There’s always something you can try, even something seemingly inconsequential. Make a phone call. Write a note. Create something and share it. Whatever action calls to you, do that.

Then ask again: “Now what?” The answer may be tentative: “Well, we could take this step.” Give that a go.

In a word: outputs. Do something.

Then ask again: “And now what?” Another step will suggest itself. Keep going.

You may find that the “now what” results in nothing but hoping for the best. And, while hope may be, as Andy Dufresne said in The Shawshank Redemption, “the best of things,” hope alone doesn’t give us firm footing.

But if we keep moving, eventually (to borrow from the title of a book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn), a path appears.

When a big failure to achieve the outcome you desired has you paralyzed, your first step back is to focus on an output. Do the next thing. Then the next. Keep asking, “And now what?” until a new outcome that you desire appears. Then, begin again.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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