Defining clear, specific, measurable desired business outcomes changes your project, reduces your costs and increases the value. Really!

Four fast ways to increase your project portfolio's value (1)

Many strategic and operational project investments struggle to generate sufficient benefits to justify their approval and delivery.

Yet, using specific ‘desired business outcomes’ TOP usually generates too many benefits and has to cull them to make them manageable. As a result of this increase in the number of benefits the investment’s value goes up too – often exponentially — taking the identified value of investments from, for example, $6m to $24m for the same cost.

This is not uncommon using the TOP Value Equation™ approach.

Calculate what it would mean for your organization if you delivered a 50% increase the projected value of your portfolio for the same cost . 

‘Desired business outcomes’, in TOP’s terminology, are clear, specific, measurable descriptions of the future end states to be achieved in business-as-usual after the end of the project when everything is working ‘just right’. When the business has delivered these ‘outcomes’ the associated benefits can be realized and the new, operational business-as-usual end state has been achieved – the desired business results have been achieved.

This is quite a different definition to how others tend to use the word ‘outcomes’ in a project context. To many, the word ‘outcomes’ is shorthand for ‘beneficial outcomes’ – ie ‘benefits’ – the benefits of the project. TOP differentiates between ‘desired business outcomes’ (business end states) and ‘benefits’ (the resultant benefits of achieving these end states) because they are different, achieved at different times and deliver different value to the business.

A focus on ‘desired business outcomes’ 

  • Raises the perspective of the investment from the project to the business level — What are you really trying to achieve in the business?
    Investments are made to achieve business outcomes, not to enable some project to be delivered. Focusing on the business outcomes increases the number and nature of business benefits made available – increasing the value of the project investment at no extra cost.
  • Provides a common, clear, specific, unambiguous and easily understandable set of outcome statements that everyone on and off the project can understand and focus on.
    The technologists can ensure that what they deliver fully supports the achievement of the business outcomes and the stakeholders know what to expect – no further need for ‘expectations management’.
  • Forces management to think through exactly what they want (not how it is to be achieved) and how ‘success’ will be measured.
    Ambiguity, unknowns and other factors that cause downstream problems are identified at the outset and can be resolved to ensure everyone is ‘on the same page’.
  • Enables delivery of the business outcomes to then deliver the business benefits and their value
    This makes benefits delivery tracking and management easy as benefits are dependent on the measured delivery the desired business outcomes – that the project is now set up to deliver. Only when the outcome has been delivered can the benefits be delivered – which is easy to track.

However, definition of desired business outcomes is not the norm. In our research of 59 projects/programs across 27 organizations we found that NONE (zero) had identified their desired business outcomes. None of these major projects had clearly defined their measures of success in business end state/new business-as-usual terms. Objectives, outputs, goals, deliverables, ‘capabilities’ abounded – but what was the investment really trying to achieve? This was never answered. Everyone knew what they were doing, but not what they were trying to achieve.

Clear, specific, measurable desired business outcome statements are the missing component in most methodologies – yet are critical to your value delivery optimization and success.

Desired business outcomes can be generated at the outset or at any time in an investment’s delivery lifecycle to increase their value potential. How?

Here are five significant benefits of defining your outcome statements:

  • It firstly becomes clear what the investment is trying to achieve in clear, specific business terms.

    It is not unusual for the generation of the outcome statements to be the first time everyone has fully understood the true purpose of an investment. Everyone will have had their views and understanding, but these are often different in detail. We have found that when outcome statements are defined for existng 'in flight' projects they are circulated far and wide with a note saying, “This is what we’re delivering.”

  • What is most important and what is less important becomes clear.

    The outcomes can be structured into an ‘Outcomes Dependency Roadmap’ that shows how they link and are interdependent. This allows the important outcomes to be identified as those with several downstream dependent outcomes – these are the outcomes you need to protect from change. 

  • Where outcomes are defined at or before the business case stage, high cost/low value outcomes can be eliminated and the overall cost and net value of the investment can be optimized – often generating substantial capital savings over time. We call this the 90-60 rule — delivering at least 90% of the benefits for only 60% of the original costs.

  • Scope changes can be managed to reduce their inadvertent destruction of value.

    Where scope changes are proposed you can now use the Roadmap to assess their potential downstream impacts on the other outcomes and their associated benefits. If you need to cut the project – which cuts will have least impact on the desired business outcomes and their value? This is made clear by the Roadmap. Cuts to the last-to-be-delivered outcomes can be made without impacting the benefits and value of the earlier outcomes.

  • The governance team is now, often for the first time, fully in control of the business value created and made available through its project investment.

  • Overlapping, duplicative and conflicting outcomes can be easily identified for immediate action.

    In larger portfolios it is quite possible for different areas of the business to have approved investments with conflicting outcomes. Through each investment’s clear statement of its outcomes, the overall portfolio’s outcomes can be accumulated, assessed and potential problems quickly identified and managed.

  • In one organization this simple exercise found four duplicative projects being conducted simultaneously!

  • Spurious benefits (and value) can be eliminated – while increasing the overall value.

    Each benefit must be attached to the desired business outcome that will either enable or deliver it. No link, no benefit. Management can then walk through the outcome roadmap to assess how the agreed outcomes will deliver the proposed benefits. Spurious benefits that will not be delivered by the project can be easily identified and eliminated.

  • However, the definition of the outcomes usually allows more benefits to be identified, quantified, targeted and delivered. Having ‘too many benefits’ is a common problem of the outcomes-based approach to benefits identification – and it is a nice problem to have.

These are only some of the benefits of this one simple definition step. Every project investment regardless of whether it is at the idea stage or is well into its delivery stage can benefit from the definition of its ‘desired business outcomes’. (We have even usefully identified the targeted business outcomes AFTER the end of the project, so as to maximize the benefits subsequently realized.)

Definition of an initial list of outcome statements takes 3-4 hours. Then this initial list needs to be refined, engineered, adapted, edited, split, replaced – whatever is required to get them 100% right. This is an iterative process that refines the initial list into a final agreed list of outcomes that are correctly phrased to fully communicate exactly what the investment is to deliver in business end state, operational terms.

Once you have your final list of ‘desired business outcomes’ you can communicate to everyone why you’re investing in this project/program and what the true business measures of success are.

When everyone is focused on delivering the same clear set of outcomes, the workload and costs go down and the benefits and value go up.

Explore the power of outcomes further


Topics: Value Delivery, Value Equation, Benefits Management, Outcomes Thinking, Path Dependency

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (July 2012) as "The Value Of Defining 'Desired Business Outcomes'"

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