Focusing on Outcomes
One question we get asked often is “How many outcomes should each role have?”
And the answer, of course, is “It depends.” Next question.
Okay, let’s dig into that answer a little bit more. The rule of thumb we use is that each well-designed and well-understood role typically has about five to seven outcomes. While that’s certainly not a hard-and-fast, never-violate type of rule, it has proven true for dozens of roles across multiple industries. Here’s the logic behind the rule:
Tom Davenport coined the term attention economy. He rightly argues that people can pay attention to only a certain number of things before they get so distracted they lose focus on the ones that matter. So it is with the major outcomes of a role. An outcome is a big element, a significant part of the role. Accordingly, each outcome deserves a significant percentage of the “attention budget” of a top performer. So, having too many outcomes—typically more than about seven—means the performer’s attention is too divided for him or her to spend enough time and energy on each outcome.
On the other hand, having too few outcomes probably means that the role is not fully understood and some additional hidden outcomes exist or that the job is too small and not enough is being asked of the people in the role. That last point is borne out by the research and writing of Daniel Pink on what motivates people to excellence. In short, Pink asserts it is autonomy, mastery, and purpose. His arguments are compelling, and we agree—particularly with his third point: purpose. To give people a purpose, they should be in a role that is weighty enough to matter to them and to their organization.
But most commonly, having too few outcomes is an indicator the role isn’t fully understood by those documenting it. To really understand a role through the eyes of the top performers, you have to watch them, talk to them, learn from them, and appreciate their perspective enough that you begin to think like them. Then you can enumerate the outcomes they produce.