Start at the end

Effective managers start at the end. Working backwards from the desired outcome, rather than scrambling forwards from today, is at the heart of how good managers think and work. This outcome focus is essential because it achieves the following:

  • Creates clarity and focuses on what is important
  • Pushes people to action, not analysis
  • Finds positive ways forward, rather than worrying about the past
  • Simplifies priorities
  • Helps to identify potential obstacles and avoid them

Outcome focus is relatively easy discipline to learn. It requires asking the same four questions time and time again:

1. What outcome do I want to achieve from this situation?

Asking this question drives us into action and gives people a sense of clarity and purpose. It is also a way of taking control of a situation and gaining benefit from it. It is a way of avoiding becoming dependent on other people’s agendas, being purely reactive, or of slipping into analysis paralysis.

2. What outcome does the other person expect from this situation?

Most managers are serving clients of some sort. Their clients may be their boss, colleague or an external people partner. One way or the other, managers are supporting other people’s agendas. Understanding what the other person wants is a very simple way of clarifying what the desired outcome of any situation is. Achieving clarity on this question enables the manager to:

  • Simplify the focus on the task in hand – the extraneous work quickly disappears
  • Predict and pre-empt problems and questions
  • Deliver appropriate outcomes to the other person

3. What are the minimum number of steps required to get there?

There are plenty of people who make things complicated. Smart people can handle complexity. Really smart people, like the best managers, create simplicity. Simplicity is far harder to achieve than complexity and is essential, given the increasing time pressure on all managers. Discovering the minimum steps requires asking a few more questions:

  • What is the desired outcome (again)
  • Are there any shortcuts? Can you buy in a solution, get someone else to provide all or part of the solution, or is there an authoriser who can shortcut the normal approval channels?
  • Does the 80/20 rule apply here? Can you achieve 80 percent of the result with just 20 percent of the effort by focusing on the few customers, who count, or the critical analysis that really will decide the issue, or by attacking the two big cost sinks that are causing the most problems?
  • What are the critical dependencies? Normally, there is a logical order to events: billing comes after shipping comes after manufacturing comes after selling. Establishing the logical order breaks even most daunting problem down into bite-sized chunks that people can manage.

4. What are the consequences of this course of action?

This question is about predicting risks, problems, unintended consequences and uncomfortable questions. If you can predict problems, you can pre-empt them. This is also the stage at which you may allow a little more complexity to creep back into the course of action.

In theory, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. In practice, the fastest route is often not a straight line. When you are sailing against the wind, the fastest route between two points is zigzag. Sailing straight into the wind gets you nowhere. This is an experience most managers understand after they have tried to sail against the political winds in their organisations.

Keep asking these four questions relentlessly and you will find the fog of confusion lifts from most situations, and you can drive a team to action.

Owen, J., 2006. How to manage. Pearson Education.

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