Understanding Process and Outcome

If I had to choose a single concept most important to achieving sustainable excellence, it would be understanding the relationship between process and outcome. This principle is key to professional excellence but also to realizing your full potential in any area of life. Master this concept and life becomes simpler, more productive, and more focused.

How Do You Handle the Pressure to Perform?

We are influenced by many societal and personal factors to focus on outcomes. Did you win the game, tournament, or election? Did you beat earnings expectations? What was your score on the golf course today? Did you meet your sales quota this month? Did you close the deal? These are a few of the questions performers face on a regular basis. If you are trying to do most anything meaningful in your life or career, you will inevitably be held accountable to some form of outcome-based result. That’s what differentiates performers from those who don’t accept the challenge to fully realize their potential.

How do you feel when you are asked these types of questions? Most people feel weighed down by instant pressure. They want to please the person asking the question, and themselves, by triumphantly stating they won. But if your goal is something truly great you can’t possibly win every battle along the way. If you chalk up a 100% win rate you’re probably setting goals that lie far below your potential.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to achieve great outcomes, but there is a catch. If you focus solely on outcomes, you are much less likely to achieve them. Why? Because the key is to focus on what it takes to get there. This seems contrary to all we have been conditioned to believe about goals and success. After all, what happens when you read a book or see a movie about someone who has accomplished great things? The story usually goes quickly from a sentimental focus on a lifelong dream, to some other story line, and then to the prize at the end of the journey. What’s missing is the thoughtful planning of how every day is spent in pursuit of the dream–the process.

What Is Choking? You Might Be Surprised

Many people apply this term loosely without true understanding. Losing a contest or not performing at our best does not always, or even often, mean we choked. Choking occurs when the performer becomes distracted from the task at hand and thinks about the outcome of the performance while they are performing. If a basketball player misses a free throw at the end of a game and his team loses, most fans would apply the choking label. But if the player performed her normal pre-shot routine, visualized the ball going through the net, removed any thoughts from winning or losing the game, and confidently shot, she did not choke even if she missed the free throw. That would be a physical, rather than a psychological, mistake. Even the greatest athletes in the world make some physical errors because human beings are not robots.

However, if the athlete was consumed by thoughts like, “I hope I make this free throw,” “I don’t want to let my team down,” or “If I don’t make this we lose the game,” that would be choking. The focus on the outcome, rather than the process of completing a normal pre-shot routine and shooting the free throw, interfered with the focus on the task at hand in the moment.

An Outcome Focus Makes It Tempting to Cheat

Have you ever wondered why some of the largest frauds, scandals, and even criminal behavior in business are perpetrated by people who already have so much power and money that they shouldn’t need more? In some cases the cause is a serious psychological issue, such as white collar sociopathy. But far more frequently, and in less obvious ways, bad behavior can result from an outcome focus. When people, companies, or teams focus solely on outcomes they are tempted to do whatever it takes to achieve them. When management relentlessly pressures people for quotas, accounts, and profits instead of providing coaching, support, and guidance to achieve these outcomes, the stage is set for unethical behavior. The message is clear: Deliver the results, however you need to, or you’re out of here.

Find a Balanced Solution

We need to embrace both a process and outcome focus to be sustainably excellent, and we need to use each properly. Begin with the outcome focus. Clearly identify what you are trying to achieve. This is important for motivation and direction. But once your outcome is clearly defined, you need to shift to a process focus. What do I need to do to get there? Depending on your desired outcome, you might design a training plan, an education plan, a competition plan, a relationship plan, or a business plan. The process plan has to be very detailed, with specific daily and weekly tasks you believe will allow you to achieve your goals.

Once your desired outcome and process plan are clear, it’s all about discipline. Continually evaluate your adherence to the process. When I work with performers to create process plans, we develop progress goals along the way. They occur in three-month, six-month, and yearly intervals. When the time comes to evaluate these goals, you have either achieved them or you haven’t. If you met the goal, carry on! Bring the confidence and sense of accomplishment with you along the journey.

If you did not achieve a progress goal, this nearly always occurs because the individual or team failed to do what they committed to do on a daily/weekly basis. The problem was not the process, it was the person. We can all identify things we would like to create in our future, but many of us do not have the discipline to consistently follow a process to achieve the dream. On the rare occasions when a goal is not met along the way and the daily/weekly goals were performed, the process needs refinement. You either need additions to the daily/weekly goals, or the goals you set along the way were unrealistic. Adjust as necessary, dust yourself off, learn your lessons, and get back into the arena!

The relationship between process and outcome is paradoxical. Sustainable excellence is a process, approach, philosophy, and discipline. If you remain focused on the process of achieving excellence, the outcomes will take care of themselves. That is the nature of the paradox. You will be more successful by focusing on what you need to do on a daily basis than by focusing on the grand prize while you’re in the process of achieving it. If you focus on outcomes rather than process during the journey, get ready for undue stress, pressure, choking, or perhaps unethical behavior in yourself and others. And remember not to confuse success with excellence, as we learned in a previous blog!

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