Your project's desired business outcomes can be your primary measure of success only when you know how to define them

‘Desired business outcomes’ are clear, specific and measurable definitions of the new end states you want to achieve in business-as-usual after the end of the project when everything is working 'just right'.

Achievement of these outcomes is what you want when you commission a project. They are your primary measures of success.

What is the problem?

The vast majority of projects do not define clearly what they are trying to achieve in a manner that can be used to direct the project and make clear what success is. They do not define clear, specific, measurable business end states when "everything is working just right"- the desired business outcomes.

Instead they define objectives, goals, deliverables, ‘capabilities’ and other types of outputs, all of which lack the precision and clarity required. As a result, the focus is too much on the project and what it is to do and deliver, and not enough on the business and what it wants to achieve.

The desired business outcomes are often ‘assumed’, lost in the attention given to what the project has to do—its formation, justification and delivery. The project manager takes over and s/he is focused on what they have to do, deliver and report. The business perspective, insofar as it existed, becomes lost, forgotten and neither managed nor measured.

And there is another compelling reason why desired business outcomes are neglected—people don’t know how to define them. Yet defining outcomes is really quite simple and when you define the outcomes you often dramatically change the whole focus of your project.

How does it work?

You need to start with your objectives, goals, or reasons for doing the project—as you do today.

But then, taking each objective in turn you ask, “Why is that important?”

You repeat this question using the answers given asking "(Each answer) Why is that important?"

You continue this simple process until you run out of answers or you reach such a generic answer that it is meaningless (eg “To increase profits”).

Then you collate your answers around the themes that have come from your answers and, for each theme, you write a sentence that starts with, “We will be successful when…” which gives you your first draft outcome statements.

That’s it. 

Okay, there is a bit more sophistication in the process than that, but that is essentially the process that transforms 'projects' into 'business investments'.

An example of how outcome statements change the conversation

Let me give you an example.

Initial objective:                 We want to move to new prestigious offices

Why is that important?    We want to be seen to be at the top of the market in terms of quality and performance

Why is that important?    We want to be able to charge premium rates as befits the value of our services

Why is that important?    We want our service quality to differentiate us

Why is that important?    We are and need to be seen as a prestige firm that our clients want to be seen to be dealing with

After applying the TOP technique to sort the themes (Jigsaw Puzzle Sort) we get the true definition of success - a Desired Business Outcome statement, which defines:

“We will be succesful when:

Over 90% of our premium-paying clients continue to use our services year-on-year because they acknowledge that they are receiving highly valued services.”

This draft outcome statement is easily measurable—Do more than 90% of our premium-paying clients stay with us each year or not? Yes or no.

Now the very first writing of this outcome statement did not contain the “over 90%” or the “year-on-year” as these were added later to make the outcome more specific and measurable so that it could be a measure of success .

That’s how it works—subsequently each draft outcome statement is subjected to review and adjustment until the statement is 100% complete and correct.

Notice the differences (and their impacts)

But notice how the initial objective was about us, “We want…” and the final statement was about the customer, “…our premium-paying clients…” In this example, the proposed office move is about positioning, branding and retention of ‘premium-paying clients’. It is not about working accommodation.

Also, occupation of prestigious offices alone will not achieve this outcome. The delivered services need to be of high value and ‘highly valued’ to justify premium fees. Therefore, much more than an office move is required to achieve this ‘90% retention’ outcome—but many of these dimensions would be missed if the project merely focused on the office move tasks.

The power of outcomes

This is the power of outcome statements—they identify the real (business) reason for the project and therefore enable you to identify ALL of the different types of activities required to achieve these real business outcomes.

In our example, those taking on this project need to know who these clients are, what they value, where they are, how often they’ll come to the office, and more. The real business outcome and measure of success is premium client retention, not ‘nice’ offices. Definition of the desired business outcomes makes this clear.

Topics: Outcomes Thinking, Path Dependency

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Apr 2015) as "How To Identify Your 'Desired Business Outcomes'"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections