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.)

An Example of Respectfully Declining a Meeting at Work That is Already in Your Calendar

Here is an example of how to respectfully decline a meeting to make time to work on a higher priority.

We occasionally find ourselves in meetings when our time could be better spent doing something else of greater value. I previously wrote about how to respond to and politely decline meeting invitations. This post is about declining a meeting you have previously accepted and communicating that in advance to all participants because some of them may be expecting you to attend. This sometimes happens with recurring meetings where you need to participate in some but not all instances. Sometimes you previously accepted a meeting, but things have changed since that no longer require your participation.

I recommend that you do daily and weekly reviews of your upcoming meetings and consider which ones you should decline to make better use of your time.

———- Forwarded message ———
From: Rajiv Pant <[email protected][redacted]>
Date: [redacted]
Subject: [redacted]
To: [redacted]

Dear Colleagues,

This initiative is important to me. I was part of the kick off and subsequent discussions, and this project is on a good track. I will skip this upcoming meeting because I don’t need to personally contribute in, nor make decisions in this next meeting.

I trust [named colleagues] — who I have preciously discussed with — to represent my interests in this meeting. I will follow up with them afterwards, if necessary.

I will use the time to focus on [another project] that needs my attention.

HOWEVER:
If I am missing something and y’all do need me to personally attend this meeting — let me know and I will participate.

Thank you.

— Rajiv Pant   राजीव पंत   潘睿哲

A 90 second video of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet discussing having less meetings and spending more time thinking and reading.

(Side note:  This is my first blog post published using WordPress 5.0 and the new Gutenberg editor.)

Suggested Template For Requesting a Meeting

Every time someone calls a meeting, they should consider using this simple template.

[ meeting-invitation-template begins ]

The desired outcome of this meeting is:

  • e.g. Come to agreement on solution for issue X
  • e.g. Make a decision about Y.
  • e.g. Share announcements about topic Z.
  • e.g. Continue to grow a good working relationship with each other by socializing in person.

Note: Explain what this meeting is meant to accomplish, instead of providing a description of the meeting. Focus on the desired result of the meeting. A meeting should accomplish one or more of three things:

  1. Solve problem(s)
  2. Make decision(s)
  3. Share knowledgeand agree to act on it and/or make it a practice
    • Knowledge, as in: data –leads-to–> information –leads-to–> knowledge –leads-to–> practice

You should come to this meeting because:

  • e.g. You are likely to have input into potential solutions for issue X
  • e.g. You are one of the folks who has a viewpoint on what decision to make regarding Y.
  • e.g. It would benefit you from hearing the announcements in this meeting.
  • e.g. This is your opportunity to ask questions about topic Z.

Note: Give the attendees at least one good reason to attend. Sometimes attendees have no idea why they are invited to this meeting. Don’t be seen as a waster of others’ time.

The guidelines for participating in this meeting are:

  • e.g. Please come prepared having read the document about ChaosMonkey.
  • e.g. Laptops & mobile communication devices are considered contraband during this meeting. If it is critical for you to have a computer during this meeting, bring a desktop computer :-)

Note: Set the expectations of the participations.

[ meeting-invitation-template ends ]

Further Reading & Thoughts:

Templates for Replying to Meeting Requests & Polite Ways to Decline Meetings

By default, we should only attend meetings where we are active participants, not passive attendees with not much to contribute to the desired outcome of the meeting. There are some exceptions to this like training sessions, educational presentations or others where the purpose for attendees is to learn something.

When I receive a meeting request, I often reply with the following text.

May I please request the following information in advance of this meeting? It will enable me to prepare, participate and be productive in the meeting.

  1. What do you recommend I should prepare in advance of this meeting?
  2. What decisions do we need to make at this meeting?
  3. What problems do we need to solve at this meeting?

Thank you in advance,

Time Management Tip: When you receive an invite for a meeting at work where you believe you may not add much value, reply to the invite with a polite message like:

Thank you for inviting me to this meeting. It seems from the subject, agenda, and attendees list that I’m not a required participant for this meeting. If I’m mistaken and my presence is required in this meeting, please accept my apologies and let me know that I should attend.

This is preferable to ignoring the meeting invite or declining without comment that may come across as rude.

To save time, you can save the above templates as text snippets to be inserted via a keyboard shortcut/macro or in a place from where you can quickly and easily copy and paste.

Discussion about declining meetings: https://plus.google.com/107443707510532643538/posts/inUkYy1Ufg7

When to have and when not to schedule meetings

Companies should, by default, avoid scheduling meetings that start before 10am or end after 5pm. If an employee comes to the office at 8am on some days, it is often to use the two hours of the morning before meetings to catch up and/or get a head start on the day. Meetings that start before 10am are often harmful overall since they put the attendees in reactive catch up mode for the rest of the day. Similarly, meetings that go on beyond 5pm (or worse, start after 5pm) take away valuable time from employees that they use to absorb information and events of the day, catch up with replying to email and get ready for the next work day.

i.e. Companies should consider any time outside the 10am to 5pm window to be not available for meetings and definitely not any weekly recurring meetings.

Preferably, employees who are ‘makers’ should have one 4-hour continuous block of time each day when they are free from meetings. (‘Makers’ differentiated from ‘Managers’)

50/25 Meeting Format

If you manage a team, value your team members time and want to improve productivity at your workplace with a simple change, consider implementing the 50/25 Meeting Recommendation that some companies are embracing. You can communicate something like the following to your team:

Dear Colleagues,

We deeply value your time, your productivity and your comfort at the workplace. As a part of our initiative to make your workday more productive, less hectic and better manageable, we recommend a 50/25 meeting format. It is simple concept: As much as possible, let us take all our meetings that are 1-hour long and shorten them to 50 minutes. For our meetings that are half-hour long, let us limit them to 25 minutes.

You will find that a 50 minute meeting will accomplish no less than a 60 minute meeting did and a 25 minute meeting will be as productive as a 30 minute one was. In fact, by having clear 50 minute and 25 minute deadlines, our meetings are likely to be better focused, on topic and more attentive. (For example: Since you will have time after the meeting to check email, there is likely to be less temptation to check emails during the meeting itself.)

The extra 10 and 5 minutes will give you valuable time back that could be used for many useful activities: Getting in the frame of mind for the next meeting or task; checking your messages to see if there is something urgent that needs your attention; or simply taking a bio break.

Please note that this not a mandate, but a recommendation. We realize that you may not be able to do this for every meeting. What we ask is that you consider doing this for meetings that you organize or can influence. As a result, we will make our great work culture even better, less stressful and even fun.

Further Reading & Thoughts:

  • NYTimes article about Larry Page, Google’s founder and new CEO instituting the same 50/25 meeting recommendation at Google:
  • http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/technology/googles-chief-works-to-trim-a-bloated-ship.html?pagewanted=all
  • If a meeting accomplishes all its goals in even less than the 50 or 25 minutes, please, by all means end the meeting even sooner.
  • We suggest that you do book the full hour or half hour in the calendar even as you implement the above so that others don’t schedule over the “10 minutes left over” in your calendar.

Thank you for considering this,

[Signature]

A discussion about this 50/25 Meeting Format: https://plus.google.com/107443707510532643538/posts/AtYgnmbhtqc

Using Laptops or Smartphones in Meetings

You might think that no one is noticing when you are using your phone if you try to hide it below the table surface, but you’d be mistaken. It is like picking your nose: Your being oblivious of others doesn’t make you invisible to them. Photo Credit: Brad Kagawa

Using smartphones — or worse, laptops — during in-person meetings diminishes productivity, is disrespectful to others and decreases your brainpower. Yes, scientific evidence indicates that multitasking makes people less intelligent.1

When you are  doing something unrelated on your phone or laptop in inappropriate situations (e.g. during business meetings), you lose out because you become oblivious to the environment, people, and subtleties around you.

However, there are a few situations where it makes good sense to use a laptop or smartphone during in-person meetings.

  • When you are the designated note-taker for this meeting.
    • Taking notes on a computer or smartphone saves time, and is more accurate than taking paper notes and digitizing them later.
    • Notes on paper can’t be searched easily, pile up as clutter and are less environmentally friendly.
    • It is more secure than taking notes on paper that can be forgotten and read by others who should not have access to the information.
    • Meeting notes and action items can be automatically saved in real time and shared quickly after the meeting.
    • There should be only one person taking notes during a meeting. If it is a negotiation between two opposing sides, then there should be no more than one note-taker per side.
  • When you need to quickly look something up that is relevant to the discussion and is either necessary or helpful to the meeting in progress.
  • Entering action items that come up during the meeting into your to-do-list so that you can focus on the meeting. This is useful for people who use the GTD system with a tool like OmniFocus.
  • Quickly and discreetly asking a question, or sharing an opinion or information over instant message without disturbing others in the meeting.
  • The distractions on the device could be managed if the user is disciplined and remains focussed on the meeting, perhaps even using the laptop to participate more actively in the meeting. After all, even a person using pen and paper can be distracted doodling or daydreaming.
  • This is the digital age.

Tip: When you bring a laptop to a group meeting or one-on-one meeting, each time respectfully explain to the others beforehand that you will use the laptop for taking notes and recording action items in your to do list only. Inform them that you will be focusing attention on the discussion and that the laptop is simply your digital notepad.

There are also many reasons against using laptops or smartphones during meetings:

  • It comes across as disrespectful to some other meeting attendees, especially those with traditional styles of working.
  • The laptop screen creates a “wall” between you and the people sitting across you.
  • The laptop does make it easy to get distracted into reading your email or other online activities. (A tablet like the iPad that lies flat on the table like a writing pad does not have this problem.)

Tip: At the start of your meeting, announce that if anyone needs to use their phone or laptop, they should step out of the room, use their device outside and return when done. This way, attendees have the freedom and won’t feel constrained.

In most situations, the drawbacks of using a laptop or smartphone during an in-person meeting far outweigh the benefits.

Tip: Provide a mobile phone charging area in your meeting rooms to encourage attendees to put away their mobile phones and participate.

What do you think? Here is link to a related discussion about using laptops, smartphones and other communications devices in meetings.

(Updated: 2014 July 26)

  1. The High Cost of Multitasking: http://blog.fuze.com/the-high-cost-of-multitasking-infographic/  []

Productive Business Meetings

Here are some suggestions for making business meetings more productive, efficient and effective.

Based on readers’ feedback, I have split this article into the following separate blog posts.

(Updated December 8, 2018.)