Don’t Focus On Outcomes

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During a number of discussions the last weeks, the notion of outcomes and disappointment with outcomes was brought up. The tendency in these conversations is an endless exploration of the reasons the unsatisfactory outcome happened (or, occasionally, why the unexpectedly positive outcome happened). Quickly people start to disagree and provide arguments for alternative points of view and things rapidly become rather time consuming with little to show for it.

Focusing on outcomes is the wrong thing to do. The insights behind this reach back thousands of years and I feel the Stoics captured it best: you should focus your energy on the things you can influence and resist focusing your energy on things that you can’t influence. In virtually all situations, the outcome is not under ones direct control and hence should not be the object of focus. If you can’t control it, you shouldn’t focus on it.

So, if we shouldn’t focus on outcomes, then what should we focus on? Obviously, we should focus on the things that we can influence. Reaching back all the way to Socrates, this is best summarized as “we are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then is not an act but a habit”. For companies and individuals alike, it is the systems that we build that determine the outcomes.

Our focus should be on the systems we use to operate, rather than on the outcomes. This is important as a strong, effective system system will increase the likelihood of a desirable outcome, but it will not guarantee it because other factors influence the outcome as well. Similarly, a weak, dysfunctional system will occasionally result in a desirable outcome. So, focusing on the outcome will not provide any guidance on the changes in the system that are required.

In this context, a system is a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method (Wikipedia). The principles refer to the set of norms, values and beliefs underlying the system and the procedures refer to the set of actions and responses that companies or you as an individual follow and execute.

The goal should be to periodically reflect on the systems that you use in order to evaluate if the system is still optimal. Especially when meeting a bad outcome, the first step should be to evaluate if the outcome is due to flaws in the system, other factors that you can’t influence or simply bad luck.

Obviously, one can easily claim that analysing the system is fraught with interpretation, biases and opinions. However, in my experience, if you’re quiet and focus on the gut feelings that you experience, it almost always results in a growing awareness of where the system that you’re using needs to be adapted. The solution might not be clear, but the basic problem often is.

Concluding, although it is incredibly tempting to do so, do not focus on outcomes. Not when faced with a bad outcome nor when faced with a positive one. Instead focus on what you can control, which, both for companies and individuals, are the systems that you use for creating outcomes. By periodically analysing, evaluating and improving your systems, you’ll reach a situation where the likelihood of positive outcomes increases. You’ll still have bad ones, but at least you’re channeling your energy on the things that matter rather than wasting time and resources on things that don’t. And, perhaps the most important, you will feel in charge of your own destiny, rather than a victim of circumstances.

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