Setting Expectations--"Whore to the System Syndrome"
Individual Expectations And How We Screw it Up

Expectations--Outcomes vs. Process

So we've been talking about organizational expectations. We need to take a brief shortcut to talk about the two types of expectations that organizations can set--outcomes objectives and process objectives.

Outcomes Objectives--These are the final product, the end result of the agency's efforts. They can be set for specific projects, the agency as a whole, based on a particular funding source, etc. They include things like the number of customers served or the number of customers that achieved a particular objective (job placement, educational attainment, stopped receiving government services, number of dogs placed in a new home, drop in domestic violence statistics, etc.).

Process Objectives--Process objectives are more focused on measuring quality in HOW outcomes are achieved. For example, how often are case notes updated and what are the quality of the case notes? If the agency refers customers to an educational program, what is the quality of that referral? How is it provided to the customer? Does the agency follow up with the customer? If the NPO builds houses in a neighborhood are their process measures in place to ensure that the homes are of high quality, rather than just focusing on putting up X number of houses in 12 months?

Now, a few things I've noticed over the years about these expectations:

  • Government agencies (which are major funding source for many NPOs) are more focused on outcomes than on process. They tend to define what should happen as an end result and not spend as much time thinking about how to measure the process of getting there.
  • When the focus is on outcomes, then it opens up all kinds of opportunities for abuse--if you just care about job placements, then I will focus on manipulating the data so that you get the job placements you requested.  If your focus is on numbers of customers served, I will focus on herding as many people as possible through my doors, not worrying so much about what happens once they get there. If you want me to build 50 houses in one year, then I may cut corners on materials if they won't arrive in time for me to meet that outcome.
  • When the focus is on outcomes, your staff will take the shortest route possible to those outcomes and they won't focus on providing quality services. Not because they don't want to, but because they won't be rewarded for quality process and because they will usually be punished for any bad outcomes.
  • Organizations that pay attention to process are more likely to achieve consistent, sustainable outcomes, but this may cause a dip in the achievement of outcomes during the transition. Most agencies aren't willing to take the hit.

The most effective NPOs set for themselves both outcome AND process objectives. And they pay careful attention to setting those process objectives that are most likely to help them achieve their outcomes.

NPOs that choose this route be very brave, though. They must be willing to risk bad outcomes for a while in order to focus on developing quality processes. They must also think carefully about the process expectations they are setting. How do these expectations align with the ultimate outcomes objectives.

All of this is easy to say and much harder to do. It requires leaps of faith and tests of will that can be nerve-racking to say the least. But in the end, done properly, they can be worth it.


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