How does a leader know when to focus on process or outcomes?

By Devin Vodicka

Process Versus Outcome. Jerry came to see me in clinic… | by Trevor Day |  Medium

At the end of the day, leaders can hold people accountable for process or outcomes but not both. Confusing when to orient to process and when to hold to outcomes leads to frustration.  Diagnosing the situation as a technical problem or adaptive challenge determines the best approach. 

The satisfaction of feeling successful is something that we intrinsically strive to achieve. Achieving goals, completing tasks, and doing a job effectively feels good and helps us to understand how we are contributing.  

Unfortunately the conditions for success are not always in place.  Sometimes we feel constrained, micromanaged, or otherwise limited in terms of time or other critical resources.  Other times the task or challenge seems too big, too vague, or we aren’t even sure what we’re trying to achieve.  Finding the sweet spot between autonomy and constraints is a universal leadership challenge.  

First, leaders must consider the nature of what needs to be done.  If there is a defined problem and known solutions, this fits in the category of a technical problem.  If the problem and/or the solution is unknown, then we’re talking about an adaptive challenge. 

Technical Problems vs. Adaptive Challenges


Leaders are well-served to orient themselves and their teams to process when confronted with technical problems.  Adaptive challenges require leaders to orient to outcomes.  

Technical problems require leaders to ensure that the team has the right resources and connections to expertise.  Utilizing a flowchart can be helpful in identifying performance bottlenecks and opportunities to better support success. 

Mager, R. F., & Pipe, P. (1997). Analyzing Performance Problems: Or, You Really Oughta Wanna (3 ed.): Center for Effective Performance.

For adaptive challenges, begin by defining the goal and values, and then ensure support and resources.  Focusing on values instead of process is a way to provide guidance on how to behave without creating unnecessary constraints.  Utilizing a natural planning model and promoting high levels of inclusiveness in the process can be extremely helpful.  Applying design thinking protocols is also an effective approach.  

What is Human-centered Design? from on Vimeo.

The key for leaders is to be thoughtful and strategic about framing the tasks and challenges at hand and then aligning an orientation to either process or outcomes depending on the nature of the situation. In order for us to achieve the universally human desire of success, we have the obligation and responsibility to establish the conditions for optimal performance. 

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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