Talking outputs instead of inputs

Talking in terms of outputs is one of the most straightforward changes you can make to communicate well at work. A simple reframing of what you plan on doing can be the difference between someone thinking you’re fully on top of things or confused and in need of help.

But what does it mean to talk in terms of outputs?

Consider the following question and two replies.

Senior team:

I’m worried that our most important project is at risk as one team looks like it might bottleneck others. What are we doing to address this?

The input response:

Next week, I’m sitting down with that team lead to explore how risky they think their delivery is and whether they need more people [input]. I’m also having a few conversations with other teams to make sure they can still progress even if some work is dependent [input].

The output response:

By the end of next week, I’ll gather risks from all teams and surface them in a document [output] that I’ll share with the group, along with our recommended actions [output] to solve any issues. I, with consultation from others, will then aim to make any decisions around prioritisation [output] by the following Wednesday to ensure the most important project will progress smoothly.

Which gives you more confidence?

Talking in terms of outputs creates three main benefits for others:

  1. It distils a complicated situation into clear check-in and decision-points
  2. Those check-in and decision-points have timelines so others know when they can expect things to happen
  3. They also have owners, so accountability is super clear

The structure of output thinking is always simple…

Who will do what by when?

In the example above; I will create a risk document with recommended actions to solve by the end of the week.

It’s easy to slip into talking about inputs when faced with a question like above. Our minds naturally think chronologically through all the actions we have to take to reach a result. But as with excellent product development, we need to start with outcomes and then later work back to all the inputs.

But it can sometimes be hard to think up the right timelines and deliverables on the spot in a meeting. If you’re unsure, a simple “I’ll pull together a plan on how we address by the end of the day and share with the group” goes a long way.

And of course, often you can answer a question directly without having to create a lengthy document or summary. Not every decision needs a detailed document to underpin your logic.

The hard part: keeping your word

Making promises is easy. The challenge is following up with those promises. However, keeping one’s word at work with the promises you make is one of the most crucial success factors. And it’s a muscle you can build with small and big commitments.

Each “who does what by when” should be a burning flag upcoming in your week. Track those commitments carefully in action-trackers or reminders (I love Todoist.com).

Importantly, you don’t have to meet every deadline you set. You might have other priorities, so you cannot achieve every commitment you make. But if this looks like a miss might happen, re-negotiate the deadline early. Let others know, apologise (lightly) for the upcoming miss, and re-commit to a new timing. As soon as you realise that a deadline is at risk, let others know! Usually changing of timeline can be a further opportunity to build trust as it shows you are on top of the projects you own.

Expanding your sphere of influence

Making clear commitments and meeting them is part of a bigger picture of showing ownership at work. As you build momentum, you begin coordinating multiple “who does what by when’s” across broad groups of people. You start to challenge every meeting you’re in to produce these if required, and you’ll build a hell of a lot of trust from everyone.

For longer-projects, your outputs might look instead at metrics moved. Judging the different altitudes at which you need to layout success metrics and checkpoints for a project becomes the next skill to develop.

You might have to set a lot of reminders to ensure others meet timelines, but you’ll drive a fantastic level of performance with this simple approach. But don’t forget to forgive yourself and others if something slips through. You can never get a perfect score!

Head of Product at Gousto