Lead With The Outcome

I once worked alongside a technical leader cursed with both excellent technical knowledge and an incurable need to apply it. Talent is not omniscience, however, and when a project he had scoped (typically down to method definitions, and certainly to a sequence of epics, stories, and tasks) hit snags, his teams would bubble the issues straight back for him to work out. He likely would have jumped in anyway; his skip-levels were just saving everyone time.

You could call it micromanagement–it gets to the same place. But even setting aside the pejorative, the drawbacks of task-focused leadership style speak for themselves:

  • work emphasized over outcomes
  • a do-learn-iterate feedback loop spread across the multiple brains
  • a corresponding lack of ownership
  • less time for leadership to deliver its strategic responsibilities
  • disempowerment on the front lines and exhaustion for all involved

While tasks are a necessary, useful tool for breaking down work, they go better when the people working on them have some say in defining and revising them. Leaders can structure, guide, and support this process, but the experience of work–and the odds of it moving the organization forward–improves dramatically when the conversation leads with outcomes.

Outcomes as optimization problem

There are two things to know about outcomes:

  1. They’re what actually move the business forward
  2. They’re path independent

We achieve outcomes by solving an optimization problem (“planning”) and then implementing the solution (“execution”); by sequencing tasks, we presume that (a) an optimal solution is known, and therefore that (b) the sequencer has:

  • all the information they need
  • the cognitive energy to apply it
  • the individual energy and/or motivational ability to deliver

Teams might. As leaders a few steps removed from the problem, we probably don’t. This is knowledge work, after all, and while experience and domain knowledge are significant advantages, any one person’s insight or creativity will rarely outstrip what several capable minds can do together.

Comparing task- and outcome-focused leadership

Beyond tapping collective strength in planning and execution, pushing task definition down to the team has the added benefit of encouraging accountability and directly connecting work to business results.

In other words:

Dimension Task-focused Outcome-focused
Emphasis Work being done Outcome being achieved
Ownership Leadership Team
Planning Leadership Team
Business Context Optional Required
Creativity Discouraged Required
Adaptation Discouraged Informed by new information
A comparison of task-focused and outcome-focused leadership approaches

Outcome-focused leadership doesn’t mean setting goals and walking away, however. Execution is an ongoing process of resource allocation, learning, and adjustment, and when new information impacts efforts outside the team, leadership needs to be involved. Leaders’ individual insight and expertise can also provide major accelerant in both planning and iteration–so long as they inform rather than prescribe.

Similarly, there are cases where a task-focused style is the right path. An inexperienced team may need more concrete guidance on its path. Executive decisions may be needed to unstick a planning process. A punchlist in the last days before a product launch may need daily check-ins to get across the line.

The take-home

For most teams most of the time, outcome-focused leadership is the sensible default. The context needed to define objectives and marshal resources? That’s leadership’s business. But the insight needed to execute and adapt sits on the front lines. Since you’ve hired good people, take advantage! Given clear outcomes, adequate support, and room to deliver, it’s amazing what they can do.

What are you thinking? Buy the premise, or take a different view entirely? While I’ve offered a few modest observations, they’re being challenged (daily) by both new research and my own experience and thinking. Wherever you’re at, I’d love to hear your thoughts and keep the conversation going.

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