The language of outcomes: 5. Between ends and means

This is the 5th and final part of a series looking at the language of outcomes and its lessons for leadership. If we’re keen to see collaboration, self-organisation, and innovation in our organisations, how should we conduct ourselves? What behaviours should we model?

The 5 posts of this series come roughly in the order that its leadership lessons arise in our workshops:

  1. Identifying the adaptive challenge
  2. Framing obstacles
  3. Generating outcomes 
  4. Organising outcomes
  5. Between ends and means (this post)

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5. Between ends and means

The typical Agendashift workshop involves multiple planning sessions. In a classic transformation strategy workshop as described in the Agendashift book [1], for example:

  1. Discovery: capturing not just where we’d like to get to, but some of the key outcomes we’d like achieve along the way
  2. Exploration: driven by the assessment [2], working forwards from opportunities, usually starting at a lower level of detail compared to anything seen in Discovery
  3. Elaboration: ideas, hypotheses, experiments, impact, etc – what we’ll actually do, the next level of detail captured on a just-in-time basis

(Sometimes we like to switch the first two around – maybe days apart – and that’s fine)

An outside-in strategy review workshop as described in Right to Left [3] might include a separate planning session for each of the five ‘layers’ – Customer, Organisation, Product, Platform, and Team. In the Wholehearted:OKR workshop [4] we take those layers in two groups, the first two (Customer and Organisation) on day 1, and the remaining three on day 2.

The different levels of detail or organisational concerns are interesting and useful, but so too is the separation between what Ackoff [5] calls ends planning and means planning:

  • Ends planning: where we’d like to get to and why
  • Means planning: where we will commit our efforts, with what resources, and how

Organisations too often jump straight to means without paying adequate attention to ends. This is change management as project management, with the solution – the Agile process framework, say – already chosen! The last few decades are littered with the repeated failures of that approach, and yet it persists, even – and most ironically of all – in the Agile community.

There’s a clear lesson there, and Agendashift provides practical ways to do both kinds of planning in the transformation and strategy spaces. There are some more subtle lessons though.

One important subtlety, and I’m grateful to Ackoff for the clarification, is that ends and means can be relative. Consider again these three sessions:

  1. Discovery: capturing not just where we’d like to get to, but some of the key outcomes we’d like achieve along the way
  2. Exploration: driven by the assessment, working forwards from opportunities, usually starting at a lower level of detail compared to anything seen in Discovery
  3. Elaboration: ideas, hypotheses, experiments, impact, etc – what we’ll actually do, the next level of detail captured on a just-in-time basis

If it is for a big enough scope (and that’s usually the case), most participants will experience Discovery very much as ends planning. Elaboration is clearly intended to be means planning.

For Exploration though, whether it’s means planning or ends planning can depend on your perspective. If you’re the sponsor, you’ll be glad to see teams fired up, engaged on the issues [6], prioritising a way forward. For you, that’s job done – means! On the other hand, if you suffer every day with those issues on the ground, exploring ways past them is an end in itself, a powerful motivation to change things, cathartic even!

The real lesson therefore is not just to practice ends planning from time to time, but to make sure that ends and means are properly understood relative to everyone’s different perspectives. Not just knowing the difference between outcomes and solutions, but knowing whose needs will be met by them. Not just resolving to avoid fixating prematurely on solutions, but having the awareness and skill to move easily between obstacles, outcomes, and solutions [7], the last of those lightly held, as hypotheses.

None of this will happen without the right people in the room. Again, if it’s collaboration, self-organisation, and innovation that you want:

Encourage solutions to emerge as & when they’re needed from the people closest to the problem [8]

Good advice generally, and especially so when those people closest to the problem are among those whose needs will be met. When the context is organisational change, it’s absolutely crucial.

Summary: The language of outcomes and its lessons for leadership

Yes, it may take a little discipline, but none of what I have described in this series is fundamentally hard. Yes, it takes some deliberate organisation design of the kind described in my books and explored in our workshops if it is to be sustained reliably over time, but that needn’t be a prerequisite for some real progress today. So why not start practicing now?

1. Identifying the adaptive challenge:

Without prescribing what the answer should be, ask questions that invite answers meaningful to the most stakeholders, exploring those answers just enough to be sure that everyone involved knows both whose needs they’ll be meeting and how they’ll be able to confirm that they’re being met. If the How can be deferred, don’t ask for it!

2. Framing obstacles:

If you want see collaboration, self-organisation, and innovation, identify real issues, taking care to avoid language that needlessly excludes people or possibility 

3. Generating outcomes:

Practice!

  • Practice asking questions to which you don’t already have the answer
  • Practice asking questions that don’t needlessly pollute the conversation with your own assumptions

4. Organising outcomes

Maintain a clear line of sight between decisions on the ground and overall objectives

5. Between ends planning and means planning (this post)

Encourage solutions to emerge as & when they’re needed from the people closest to the problem

References

[1] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation, Mike Burrows (New Generation Publishing, 2018)
[2] Agendashift™ assessments (agendashift.com)
[3] Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile, Mike Burrows (New Generation Publishing, 2019)
[4] Wholehearted:OKR (agendashift.com)
[5] Re-creating the Corporation: A Design of Organizations for the 21st Century, Russell L. Ackoff (OUP USA, 1999)
[6] “Obstacles, contradictions, and imbalances recognised and owned as opportunities for authentic engagement” – the first line of Our mission: Wholehearted (agendashift.com). See also its announcement, Making it official: Agendashift, the wholehearted engagement model
[7] See also Coaching for P.RO.s, (cleanlanguage.co.uk), Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, using slightly different terminology to Agendashift’s: problems, remedies, and outcomes
[8] What is Strategy Deployment (availagility.co.uk)

Acknowledgements

I’m grateful for feedback on earlier drafts of this post from Teddy Zetterlund, Thorbjørn Sigberg, Richard Cornelius, and Kert Peterson. And thank you Karl Scotland for reference [8].

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