Playbook

How to Maximize Project Outcomes and Avoid Quick-Fix Solutions

Struggling with project outcomes? Your breakthrough may lie with intake processes, Stage Gate reviews, and—importantly—the oft-overlooked people side of the process equation.

Read time: 9 min

Who this is for and why it matters

The mindset shift from task checklists and project outputs to real business outcomes is well underway at leading companies.

Just ask Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden over at Harvard Business Review:

"Just because we’ve finished making a thing doesn’t mean that thing is going to create economic value for us. If we want to talk about success, we need to talk about outcomes, not just outputs.”

Or Lori Haberman, PMP and VP of Operations at The Pedowitz Group, a management consulting group for execs:

“Traditionally, project success has been measured by the delivery of predetermined outputs. However, in an era where organizations are increasingly focused on the real-world impact of their endeavors, a paradigm shift towards outcome-based project management is taking center stage.”

In other words: Leaders understand that outcomes trump output and problem-based solutions get us further than lists of deliverables.


Avoid the 'quick fix' disasters of an output-centered workflow

Much like a child cleaning their room by pushing all their toys under the bed, we often technically solve a problem while doing ourselves or our users a big disservice later when—inevitably—someone looks past the bed skirt.

ClickUp Clean vs Supposedly Clean Room Illustration Final

Outcome-first processes are designed to keep us from those kinds of “quick fix” disasters. So, we get it.

Outcomes over output. That’s the goal.

The next step? Moving past intellectual acceptance to actual implementation of an “outcome is king” way of working.

You can do it by following this simple framework.

Maximize Project Outcomes TL;DR Diagram

Start with outcomes to streamline work intake

When we say everything that comes next hinges on your work intake process, we’re not exaggerating.

If you greenlight projects that have no ties to strategic outcomes, you are (obviously) unlikely to achieve strategic outcomes. Enough monkeys on typewriters will eventually duplicate the Bible, but who has that kind of time? (Or sufficient monkeys.)

To set ourselves up for success, our work intake process must align every single one of our projects with the overall business strategy—and the outcomes that strategy is after.

What does that mean? Jeff and Josh in the HBR piece give a clear example of output vs. outcome (and the relationship between the two).

They give the example that you may hire a vendor to build a website with the goal to boost online sales and that vendor can successfully develop and launch the site on schedule and within budget, ensuring it's visually appealing and user-friendly.

However, if this doesn't lead to an increase in product sales, the website, while completed as an output, does not fulfill the ultimate goal. Even though the project is technically finished, if it doesn't result in more sales—the desired outcome—it cannot be considered a success.

While we can’t have 100% certainty about reaching our outcomes this early in the process, we can require that:

  • Every project has clear outcome expectations
  • Each of those outcomes is clearly outlined in an outcome statement when they hit the work intake decision-maker’s desk
  • The person (or people) in charge of your work intake process have the power to stop a project before it starts

Maintain an outcome-first mindset with a Stage Gate review

You can’t take an outcome-based approach unless your strategic objectives are interwoven with your processes from start to finish. A good intake process can make sure we start strong. But keeping that strong connection to outcome throughout the process is equally important.

Which is why the lesser-known practice of Stage Gate reviews can be a game-changer.

If you haven’t heard of them, here’s the bottom line: Stage Gate reviews are predetermined points in your process where you decide—based on outcomes—whether a project continues to move forward, changes course, or dies a well-deserved “no outcomes possible” death.

Typical vs outcome-first project decision tree

In short: the minute that a project stops supporting the desired outcome, it’s time to reroute or kill our darlings. We should never be afraid to go back to the drawing board, pause to reevaluate, adjust course, or even decide the project is ultimately a no-go because we’ve gotten new information along the way.

Reviews should be conducted by someone who is not the project manager (intentionally removing bias and a sunk costs mentality from the process) and can have three outcomes:

  • Full steam ahead—we’re on track to deliver our outcomes
  • Danger, Will Robinson—we need to pause and re-route because we’re veering off track
  • RIP project—we’re no longer supporting the desired outcome, and it’s time to get out

As Nicki Vo, an innovation management and leadership development expert, put it, Stage Gate is about using the actual gating process to prevent things from continuing.

Nicki Vo Stage Gate LinkedIn Post

Empower decision-makers to green-light or kill projects at every stage

If we take the Harvard Business Review example of website (output) vs. selling more products (outcome), let’s say we’ve set up a Stage Gate review mid-project.

At that point, the project temporarily pauses as the original strategic brief, status, and all other relevant information make their way to our (non-manager) decision-maker for review. That person (or group of people) reviews the project with a focus on how it is (or is not) moving toward the desired outcome.

Now, let’s say that during that previous phase of the project, we discovered one (or all) of the following:

  • Almost no customers shop online for this particular product (for example: medical equipment that had to be specially fitted)
  • 99% of customers prefer to shop via app instead of website
  • A test of the alpha version of the website performs far worse than the current website

In those cases, moving forward with the output of “launch website,” very clearly doesn’t serve anyone. Stopping to reevaluate or perhaps kill the project altogether makes much more sense.

And so our decision-maker(s) would press the kill switch (in the case of the first two bullets) or the pause button (in the case of the third, where there are lingering questions about why the new website isn’t performing).

On the other hand, if our reviewer finds that the website is on track to support the ultimate goal of product sales, they give the project a green-light to continue.

Of the many benefits to this process, perhaps the most obvious one is that it lets us shift much sooner if something isn’t working. This means less budget and time wasted and more budget and time for projects that serve our goals.

Unblock teams with the right incentives

In our experience, the greatest risk to an outcome-first way of working is if you can’t get your teams on board. And this is a place where a lot of companies fall down on the job.

If people’s bonuses, time off, performance, or even ability to keep their job or advance in their career are measured based on outputs, you’ve already lost the outcome vs. output battle.

Because the incentives are all wrong. If the raise that I desperately need is tied to “finishing the app,” I’m going to prioritize finishing the app—even if I know that app isn’t going to achieve its end result. If my boss is judging me by output, making the shift to outcome-first thinking simply won’t feel safe.

Arjun Naskar, Chief of Staff at ClickUp, explains how questioning the "why" behind our work actually helps us prioritize the projects we believe will have the best chances of yielding successful outcomes.

Arjun Naskar ClickUp Quote Graphic

Arjun adds that his team looks at the metrics at least weekly to make sure they're constantly moving up and to the right. His team adjusts their plans along the way and then tie all promotions, awards, perks, and celebrations to the completion of projects that impact those goals and KPIs.

In short: even as you streamline the heck out of your processes, never forget the impact your talent will have on whether those processes are adopted.

You can have the best, most outcome-focused process in the world, but if the incentives, ways of working, time allowances, etc., are not there to support workers in making the shift, that shift is unlikely to happen.

Unblocking Your Teams- Potential Graphic V1

The good news is that when you do change incentives and structures to support adoption, the impact has a ripple effect. Not only are teams more likely to adopt the outcome-first mindset you’re after, but they’re also likely to be more psychologically satisfied with their work.

As Simon Sinek says in his viral TED Talk, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

That goes for employees just as much as for customers. If you want buy-in, they need to understand the outcome, the why, the reason their work matters.

Outcomes are king when supported by process and people

The jury’s in: outcome-based ways of working are the smart path forward.

To get there, we need both excellent processes (in the form of things like great intake processes and Stage Gate reviews) and total buy-in from our teams.

Want to see how ClickUp can support things like Stage Gate reviews and other project management methodologies?

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Register for a group demo and AMA where you can ask questions and see the product in action within a group setting. These live webinars are happening nearly every week and each one allows you to have your camera off—with no pressure to engage.

See how ClickUp can help you improve your project outcomes—and on your own terms—today!

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