Outputs versus Outcomes

Outputs vs Outcomes
What is the difference between an output and an outcome?
Outputs tell the story of what you produced or your organization’s activities. Output measures do not address the value or impact of your services for your clients. On the other hand, an outcome is the level of performance or achievement that occurred because of the activity or services your organization provided.

There are three levels of achievement:

  1. Outputs, products, or solutions are created by the project work.
  2. The output(s) result in outcomes, and
  3. The outcome(s) create benefits and business value

As an example in a project designed to implement a document management system:

  1. The implemented document management system that users can actually use is the output
  2. This output results in certain outcomes, for example:
    • faster and easier access to the documents
    • fewer mistakes in archiving and retrieving documents
    • ability to control versions and having access to the latest revisions
    • ability to have reports that help us find solutions for other business problems
  3. And finally, those outcomes create benefits, or in other words, business value:
    • 2% cut in the operation cost

There are less or more different ways of handling each of those three layers:

  • A project is usually understood as a concept dedicated to creating the output
  • A program is usually understood as a concept dedicated to creating the outcome
  • A portfolio is usually understood as a concept dedicated to increasing benefits

And consequently, project management, program management, and portfolio management systems are used. A good option is to use PRINCE2, MSP, and MoP methods respectively.

A portfolio management system tries to increase benefits and maximize the business value by defining, selecting, and resourcing multiple programs and projects. A program also tries to achieve the outcome by defining and directing multiple projects; the combination of the outputs created by the projects will realize the desired outcome.

While the main focus of the project management system is on the outputs, it still has to pay enough attention to the two higher level to make sure the product is realized effectively. It should also support the higher levels of program and portfolio management by tracking the realization of outcomes and benefits.

While this concept is still valid in Agile environments, differentiation of different layers is much harder, since we are not sure about the product (output) in Agile environments and let it evolve by focusing on the outcomes and values instead. This situation makes it hard to separate the project management system from the program management system.

PRINCE2 Agile insists on the need for being more focused on the outcomes and values instead of outputs (e.g. in the Business Case and Project Product Description).

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