All projects exist to create results, some level of change in the world. The simplest definition is that outputs are our projects’ immediate results and outcomes are the long-term changes that take place because of our outputs. But the difference between outputs and outcomes is much more important than that.
Our outcomes are the real reason for running our project. They are the improvements that the project will create or the benefits that people will experience because of our project. We can create our outcomes by answering “What will be going on in the world if we get this right?”
Our outputs are the products, items, interventions or services that will enable the outcomes to be delivered. We can create our outputs by answering “What is the most effective and efficient way to enable our outcomes?”
|Public awareness campaign||People make different choices|
|Conference||Improved awareness and understanding, strengthened relationships|
|Training programme||Behaviour change, Increased confidence|
|Exercise programme||Improved health|
|Database||Improved analysis, learning and decision-making|
|Research reports||Policy change|
Our hypothesis is that our chosen outputs will achieve our outcome results. However, we should always start with outcomes first, and stay focused on them throughout the project.
Otherwise, we face the risk of delivering excellent outputs, that don’t actually create the change we want to make in the world. We can’t afford to have leaflets for leaflets sake, to produce reports that no-one acts upon or run an event no-one benefits from. Our outputs are simply a means to an end.
Focusing on outcomes also encourages us to assess whether the chosen outputs alone will be enough. In the example of a database, simply creating a database may not lead to improved analysis, learning and decision-making. We may need additional outputs such as staff training, user manuals and guidance as part of staff inductions.
For many people, focusing on outcomes instead of outputs requires a significant shift in culture and thinking. We like outputs, they are tangible and things we do or create. Moving them forward makes us feel good.
Outcomes are more complicated, often less tangible, and can involve changes that are hard to pin down and measure. But they are what really count and so we need to know what we would be expecting to see, and how we would know if they were happening.
Because outcomes are about creating change, they often depend on other people – people behaving in new ways or making different decisions. So, we need to build into our project a way to assess and capture those changes, before the project starts. This can take real thought and planning. But focusing on these outcome measures helps us to track what really matters and tells us if we are truly creating the change we want to see.
Outcomes also help to keep us motivated and engaged. A project isn’t just a list of things to do. It is our way of making the world better.
To develop your project management skills, take a look at our Project Management Programme. As well as setting measurable results, you will learn how to create a project rationale, manage your stakeholders and risks, create accurate project plans and monitor and evaluate success. If you’d like to discuss project management, contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to speak to a consultant.