Activities, Outputs, and Outcomes — A framework for your job

This is a framework for understanding, describing, and performing your job duties, roles, and responsibilities. You can use this as a template to create a useful job description that you would actually use while you are in a job.

It divides a job into three categories: activities, outputs, and outcomes. To be successful in your job, it is useful to understand the difference between these, and to achieve an optimal balance spending appropriate time and energy on each.

This article is written for multiple audiences — people who are primarily in maker (direct contributor) roles as well as those primarily in leadership and management roles. The ratios of time spent on activities, outputs, and outcomes as well as the types of items in each varies based on your particular job. You should determine in collaboration with your organization how your job should be defined and described in terms of these.

Ask yourself this question: After being hired in a job, do you ever refer to your HR job description to guide you or to check if you are doing what your job is described as?

I prefer to use this framework rather than the commonly seen job descriptions. Most job descriptions are not real descriptions — they are job advertisements to get candidates to apply to. After the employee is hired, they rarely, if ever look at their job description. Conventional job descriptions are usually a formality to check certain HR, legal, or compliance boxes. The commonplace job description is like the marketing ad for a product. This is meant to be the summary version of the owner’s manual. For examples of longer handbooks for jobs, you can view my previous articles 90 Day Plan for a CTO in a New Job and How to be an effective CTO.

You can’t magically drive results. To meet your company’s objectives and key results (OKRs), you must spend time on activities and produce outputs. I link to more information on OKRs later in this article in the outcomes section.

Activities

Activities are the things you spend time doing in your job. Certain activities may be doing the work of creating deliverables, but others may not deliver tangible outputs. Some activities may directly lead to measurable business results, but others may not.

Activities can be beneficial to the organization or they could be busywork of low value. It is better to spend more time on activities that lead to outcomes  — or at least to outputs — than on activities that can’t be confidently tied to valuable business results.

Always to know its clear purpose before engaging in an activity. For example, attending a meeting is an activity. If you do not have a clear and valuable purpose for why you are attending a meeting, you are likely wasting your and others’ time.

Here are some examples of activities.

  • Reading and answering emails and slack messages. Being responsive
  • Attending (preferably participating in) meetings
  • Talking 1:1 with colleagues to build good professional working relationships
  • Interacting with team members and colleagues to uplift their morale
  • Mentoring and coaching others
  • Organizing working sessions, meetings, and presentations
  • Resolving conflicts
  • Reviewing the work output of others
  • Soliciting input from other teams
  • Providing substantial and insightful feedback provided on work, documents and plans created by others
  • Leading by example. Demonstrating leadership, management, and ethical behavior
  • Demonstrating expertise or deep experience in one or more areas
  • Interviewing job candidates
  • Collaborating with others and helping them with their work

The activities in the above examples by themselves are often insufficient. You could have a very busy day at work every day, and yet accomplish little in terms of valuable and meaningful results. Imagine a car stuck in sand, spinning its wheels but not moving forward or a wild animal in a zoo enclosure pacing back and forth yet accomplishing little beyond getting light exercise.

When I ask someone how their work is these days, and they reply “busy, very busy,” I’m usually unimpressed. It implies that their schedule is busy and it is likely not by their own choice. Unless you work in extraordinary circumstances — as a hospital ER or are an active duty soldier engaged in a war — that response likely signals your schedule is completely out of your control — a sign of weakness and poor prioritization. When the first word that comes to someone’s mind in describing their work is “busy,” it is a sign that they are far more focused on activities than results. If you had to describe your work in one phrase, I’d prefer hearing words like “exciting,” “meaningful,” or “challenging“.

Don’t be busy, be purposeful

Outputs

Outputs are the tangible deliverables you create or co-create. Outputs are maker’s work. Your team’s outputs do not count as your own unless you had a significant hands-on part in creating them as a maker, not just as a manager.

While outcomes are the most valuable part of any job in any organization that cares about results, outputs are the most easily measured and attributable to you. Examining your outputs is one way for your company to know about the value you personally add. Good outcomes usually result from teamwork. Because outputs are tangible and can be reviewed by others, their examination leads to your management being able to continually better align your work to the organization’s desired results.

Creating outputs on a regular basis also helps you avoid failing the lottery test:

Below are some examples of outputs. To be considered outputs, these must exist in a tangle form as physical and/or digital product. For example: documents, presentations, spreadsheets, diagrams, videos, software code, or physical objects. Drafts and prototypes are acceptable.

  • a vision, strategy, plan, recommendations, and works of thought leadership
  • thoughtful memos
  • written down plans
  • proposals, business cases
  • competitive research
  • budget spreadsheets
  • diagrams
  • status reports with evidence of material work you did or progress you made
  • software code
  • multimedia, videos, photos, artworks
  • digital and/or physical products

As a general best practice, you should not create most of your outputs in isolation. You should share early drafts and prototypes of your work and ask for input and feedback. Your colleagues should have clear idea what you are working on and why. Stanford Professor Baba Shiv’s Art of the Imperfect Pitch is another reason to share early versions of your work.

I can’t stress enough that to be considered your outputs they need to be authored or significantly co-authored by you. Even if your job role is strategist, planner, or thought leader, you still need to write down (or make a video of, if that’s your thing) your strategy, plans and thoughts. Writing down ideas also helps refine and evolve them. On that note, while slide presentations have their value and place in specific situations, they should never be a substitute for a well thought out document. To quote the famous and successful founder and CEO of Amazon:

“The reason writing a ‘good’ four page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20-page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what.”

Jeff Bezos

Outcomes

Outcomes are the results. These are the most valuable and important part of your job. The activities you engage in and the outputs you produce should be towards these results. I recommend the OKR framework that I mentioned near the beginning of this article. Here is a link to a comprehensive guide to objectives and key results

Below are some examples of types of results. Results should be measurable (preferably with numbers), directly lead to objectives being met, and of real, high value.

  • meeting or exceeding revenue, profit, and/or growth targets
  • delivering products and services to customers that meet their needs or delight them
  • process changes in operations and/or product areas resulting in savings of time and/or money
  • culture improvements shown to increase employee morale, productivity, and retention
  • other measurable improvements that can be directly or indirectly attributed to your work
  • better collaboration or relationships among distinct teams leading to quicker and higher quality product delivery

Next Steps and An Alternative To This

To illustrate how to use this framework, I’ll share an example of a job description using this as a template at a future date and update this article. If you try this out and would like to share yours, Tweet it to me at @rajivpant and I’ll include a link to it from this article.

An alternative to this framework I’ve provided is Holacracy‘s system of describing a job a different trio: purpose, accountabilities, and domains. I plan to incorporate some lessons from those into this system in future and will update this article.

Takeaways

To avoid the cycle of often being too busy yet not accomplishing the goals to your organization’s and your satisfaction, consider describing your job using this framework to create a quick user’s guide for your job.

If you go so far as to create a handbook to help you do your job better, include checklists because they are effective. The CTO 90 Day Plan I mentioned earlier is such a checklist.

Once you have drafted an actionable job description you can refer to periodically, use it to guide your work. You should review your actual work (your calendar, deliverables, and results) along with your job description on a regular basis, making changes to your actual work or to the description, as appropriate.

Such a living handbook is also immensely valuable to the next person in your job (when you are are in your next even greater job.)

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