Outputs versus Outcomes

Projects deliver outputs, programs deliver outcomes” is the new mantra.

Sorry, I must have been absent when this distinction was made as I’ve always tried to deliver ‘outcomes’ from my projects. To merely focus on delivering some ‘outputs’ and ignore the ‘outcomes’ makes a nonsense of why we do projects. It lets the project team get away with myopic thinking and ignoring the value realization dimension of a project.

So what is the difference between a project and a program?

A ‘program’ is a combination of ‘projects’ that are run as one entity because the projects are related and they cumulatively build on each other’s results to deliver more value than if they were managed separately. A ‘program’ is, therefore, an organizing construct not a different beast in terms of results.

A ‘project’ should be set up to deliver one or more ‘outcomes’. For many years we have found that ‘projects’ deliver, on average, 8-16 ‘outcomes’ — desired business end states.

When we have developed a ‘program of work’ the number of ‘outcomes’ to be delivered has, on occasions, exceed 100! Yet, each ‘project’ within that program was charged with delivering usually 8-16 outcomes.

‘Outputs’ are generated and delivered within a project as the building blocks towards the end set of ‘desired business outcomes’.

If this notion of projects only deliver ‘outputs’ is allowed to go unchallenged:

  1. The reputation projects have for non-delivery will be further exacerbated (as the business ultimately judges projects on the basis of business outcomes achieved, not project outputs delivered)
  2. Every worthwhile initiative will need to become a ‘program’, even when it only has one dimension (as opposed to multiple projects). This would make the distinction worthless.

Because a program has multiple streams of concurrent work (ie projects) it requires additional Program Management activities to keep them all in alignment, stage their implementation and ensure 1+1=3 when they are delivered. It requires different inputs not produces different outputs.

The definition distinction has got it the wrong way round – the difference between projects and programs is in their inputs and complexity, not their outputs and deliverables.

So a program is an organizing principle with associated (program) management processes designed to deliver multiple ‘business outcomes’ — but these outcomes are the cumulative results of the delivery of each project’s outcomes. No more, no less.

Topics: Strategy Execution, Value Delivery, Project Controls

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Nov 2008) as "Outputs Versus Outcomes"

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