ResourcesBlogProduct Management Monday: Outputs vs. Outcomes

Product Management Monday: Outputs vs. Outcomes


Welcome to Product Management Monday! Join us each week as we share everything you need to know about product management.

A team of Product Managers focusing on outcomes

Unlocking Innovation: The Power of Outcomes

In product management, the excitement of new features often overshadows what truly matters—outcomes. This misplaced focus can lead to products that, while feature-rich, fail to deliver value to the customers they are meant to serve. It’s time to shift our perspective from output-centric to outcome-focused, unlocking the door to true innovation.

The Common Misstep – Focusing on Outputs

Imagine a chef preparing a meal who becomes preoccupied with using every ingredient available in the kitchen. She focuses on blending ingredients, preparing them to perfection, and measuring her success by determining how many ingredients are used in the dish. She feels accomplished when the dish is complete; she uses all the ingredients! This focus on generating dishes with all the ingredients causes the Chef to lose sight of the dish she initially set out to create. The result? A meal that is unlikely to satisfy anyone’s appetite.

So, what’s the key takeaway for us as product professionals? We need to shift our focus from outputs to outcomes, just like our Chef needs to ask, “Did my diners truly enjoy their meal?” 

The Chef in our cooking scenario can be easily compared to the current state of product management, where the emphasis on adding features (outputs) overshadows the creation of value for our customers (outcomes).

Understanding Outcomes vs. Outputs

Outcomes are the benefits or changes users experience from a product or service. At the same time, outputs are the tangible products or services created. These two concepts are closely linked. We generate outputs (products, features, or increments) to create outcomes for our users. That is how we create value for our users. 

Let’s explore the typical work style for product managers. We are regularly asked to deliver outputs (in the form of solution requests), prioritize our development backlogs (maximizing outputs to satisfy stakeholders), and measure success based on the outputs delivered (Sprint velocity, the number of features released, or on-time delivery).

For a product manager striving to make a strategic impact, focusing on outcomes means spending less time building more features and more time achieving goals that resonate with users.

The Power of an Outcome Focus

By prioritizing outcomes, we can begin asking the right questions: “What change do we want to bring about for our users?” This shift aligns product features with user needs. It fosters a culture of innovation, where every decision directs us toward creating value for the people who matter: our customers.

Imagine you’ve just landed a job as a product manager at a running shoe company. Everyone’s following the playbook perfectly, hitting every feature release and meeting deadlines with precision. Yet, despite ticking all the boxes for success, the company’s sales aren’t budging, leaving everyone puzzled.

At first, you follow the old pattern of thinking that adding cool new features to the shoes is the key to growth. But then it hits you: Maybe it’s more than just the features. You realize the company has been so caught up in what it can produce that it’s lost touch with what runners want from their shoes.

So, you shift gears. Instead of asking, “What new feature can we add?” you ask, “How can our shoes improve a runner’s day?” This change in perspective transforms everything. You begin researching and understanding your user’s needs, pains, and desires. You are excited and start sharing what your research is revealing. Instead of telling them the next feature to build, you express their need as an outcome: “We want to increase foot and ankle comfort so that I can enjoy longer, more frequent runs.”

Communicating outcomes allows your stakeholders to see your product through the eyes of the people using them, leading to innovations that genuinely resonate with runners.

By putting the customer’s desired outcome at the center of every decision, you rejuvenate the product line and spark a new connection between the brand and its users. Now, every feature added isn’t just about something new; it’s about making each run better for the people who matter most. Now, that is what I call innovation!

Implementing an Outcome Focus in Your Workflow

Transitioning to an outcome-focused approach requires product managers to shift their approach. Follow these three steps to start your journey towards innovation:

1. Define clear, measurable outcomes by learning from your customers.

2. Communicate these outcomes across teams.

3. Measure success based on these outcomes, not outputs. 

Embrace discovery and learn from your users to define and prioritize your outcomes. Communicate outcomes widely to ensure stakeholder alignment. With an outcome focus, your development teams can apply more imagination and creativity in their solutions, the marketing and sales teams will be able to speak the customer’s language, and leaders will measure true success.

Overcoming Challenges in Shifting Focus

The journey from an output to an outcome focus is filled with challenges, including resistance from within and the temptation to revert to the familiar output-driven approach. If you experience resistance, start with business outcomes, the results your organization is working to achieve. These often feel familiar to many. For example, a leader will instantly understand the business outcome: “Increase revenue 10% this year.” After aligning around business outcomes, you can begin transitioning the conversation to “What outcomes does our customer want to achieve?” Then, you make the magic connection between delivering customer outcomes and business success.

Your Path to Innovation Through Outcomes

The shift to an outcome-focused approach in product management is essential for those looking to upskill their product management practice and drive meaningful innovation. By focusing on the impact we wish to have on our users, we can begin to craft products and services that truly matter, leading to business success. Let’s find ways to incorporate outcomes into our product management practice to guide our efforts and inspire innovation. 

Be sure to check back for more topics weekly on Product Management Monday. If you are ready to improve your outcomes, take our Optimal Product Management Training course. Join us in learning the proven Product Management process to help create successful products.

Ryan Cantwell
April 15, 2024