Process and Outcome

There are many useful mental models— ways of looking at the world. Looking at a problem or situation through different lenses tends to reveal different insights— and to obscure other elements. Here, I’ll mash up two different things I like to think about: process + outcome with 2×2 grids.

Two caveats first though– this idea is most helpful for repeatable things. When facing one-offs, this is probably not the most helpful framework. Second, it’s important to ​clearly define the problem​— how we define the problem leads directly to what the outcome that we are trying to solve.

Here’s the grid:

Bad process, bad outcome: Yup— where’s the surprise? In other words, we commit to a bad process, the resulting outcome is bad, there should be little surprise here. The key here is to recognize that the process is bad, and then try and change it. Often, we’ll come up with excuses for why it didn’t work, or we’ll say something like, “I know the process, but I didn’t follow it.” What’s another name for a process no one follows? A bad process.

Good process, good outcome: Hurray! This is where we want to be. We’ve been thoughtful, designed a process well, and then things work out the way we wanted. More of this, please. Now, the trick is to continue to do this, to reinforce it, and to ensure we stick to it.

Bad process, good outcome: Hmm. We do not feel like we have a good process in place, but things work out pretty well anyway. One possibility is that we just got lucky. Phew! But if we find ourselves getting unreasonably lucky, over and over, perhaps it’s worth considering if we have a better, more effective process than we originally considered. What is it that we are doing that is enabling such unbelievable luck?

Good process, bad outcome: Again, this is tricky. Either we just got unlucky (it’s bound to happen sometimes), or… perhaps the process is not as good as we think it is. Similar to getting lucky often, if we find that we get unlucky often, perhaps we need to go back and look at the process. Perhaps what we have convinced ourselves is the right way is so good after all.

Figuring out which box we’ve landed in can be hard to figure out. It can feel like things just happen to us, and that we have not control, when in fact we do.. Or, things can just go our way and we don’t realize what we are doing to enable that– but perhaps we are doing more right than we give ourselves credit for.

This type of thinking– process and outcome, 2×2 grids– is more likely something we think about at work, and less likely something we think about in the rest of our lives. In fact though, it is a useful idea to apply to our health, relationships, and personal life.

For example, a lot of people have trouble sleeping, but think of this as an unlucky event, rather than the result of a bad process. While there’s a lot of things that go into sleeping well, what drives good sleep is often largely in our control. And yet, we keep getting surprised when we repeat the same lousy process and get the same lousy outcome.

Sometimes, the challenge is not really thought of as a broken process, but rather, an inability to follow a good process. I know that if I were exercising, I’ll be taking care of my health, but I can’t seem to make it happen. The truth is though, that a process that is not followed is just another name for… a bad process. A good process is one that, almost by definition, can be followed. Having a process that is so esoteric, difficult, or complicated that it is not reasonably followed is simply not a good process.

As an example, if we know we need to go get more physical activity, try to get more physical activity, and fail to get more physical activity, we’d have to conclude that we have a bad process, rather than we keep getting unlucky. A process that isn’t followed is another name for a bad process, and how we define the problem is key. If the solution has been defined as I need to go to the gym, and that does not happen, perhaps we need to re-think the process for getting more activity. Incorporating more walking? Cycling to work? Lifting weights at home? Going to a yoga class? It is not that we keep getting unlucky– we have a bad process.

Similarly, if we find that we are doing things that are keeping us healthy and happy, perhaps we can also look at our processes and give ourselves some credit– or at least identify what it is that we are doing, so that we can ​keep doing it.​ If we are exercising regularly, what is the process that is enabling us to make this happen? Understanding that allows it to continue.

What processes do you do that work? What repetitive problem that comes up for you could stand a process adjustment?


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