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Steering by Outcomes: Begin with the End in Mind

Posted by on May 20th, 2016 Posted in: Logic Models, Practical Evaluation


If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there – Yogi Berra

Toy car sitting on a road map

Next week, Karen and I will be facilitating an online version of one of NEO’s oldest workshops, Planning Outcomes-Based Outreach Projects for the Health Science Information Section of the North Dakota Library Association.The main tool we teach in this workshop is the program logic model, but our key takeaway message is this: Figure out where you’re going before you start driving.

If you drive to a new place, your navigator app will insist on a destination, right?  Well, I’m like an evaluation consulting app: those who work with me on evaluation planning have to define what they hope to accomplish before we start designing anything.

In fact, I get positively antsy until we nail down the desired end results.  If I’m helping a colleague develop a needs assessment, I want to know how he or she plans to use the data.  To design a program evaluation process, I have to know how the project team defines success. When consulting with others on survey design, I help them determine how each question will provide them with actionable information.

My obsession with outcomes crept into my personal life years ago. Before I sign up for continuing education or personal development workshops, I consider how they will change my life.  When my husband and I plan vacations, we talk about what we hope to gain on our trip. Do we want to connect with friends? See a new landscape? Catch up on some excellent Chicago comedy? Outcomes-thinking may be an occupational hazard for evaluation professionals. Case in point: Have you seen Karen Vargas’s birthday party logic model?

Top 5 Reasons to Love Outcomes

So how did I become an outcomes geek? Here are the top five reasons:

  • Outcomes are motivating: Activities describe work and who among us needs more work? Outcomes, on the other hand, are visionary. They allow you to imagine and bask in a job well done. Group discussions about outcomes are almost always more uplifting and enthusiastic than discussions about project implementation. Plus, you will attract more key supporters by talking about the positive benefits you hope to attain.
  • Outcomes help you focus: Once you have determined what success looks like, you’ll think more carefully about how to accomplish it.
  • Outcomes provide a reality check: Once you know what you want to accomplish, you’ll think more critically about your project plans. If the logical connection doesn’t hold, you can course-correct before you even start.
  • Planned outcomes set the final scene for your project story: Ultimately, most of us want or have to report our efforts to stakeholders, who, by definition, have a vested interest in our program. Project stories, like fairy tales, unfold in three acts: (Act 1) This is where we started; (Act 2) This is what we did; (Act 3) This is what happened in the end.  Program teams notoriously focus on collecting evaluation data to tell Act 2, while stakeholders are more interested in Act 3.  However, if you articulate your outcomes clearly from the start, you are more likely to collect good data to produce a compelling final act.
  • Identifying expected outcomes helps you notice the unexpected ones. Once you start monitoring for planned outcomes, you’ll pick up on the unplanned ones as well. In my experience, most unplanned outcomes are sweet surprises: results that no one on the team ever imagined in the planning phase.  However, you also may catch the not-so-great outcomes early and address them before any real damage is done.

How to Steer by Outcomes 

When I work with individuals or small project teams, here are the questions we address when trying to identify program outcomes:

  • What will project success look like?
  • What will you observe that will convince you that this project was worth your effort?
  • What story do you want to tell at the end of this project?
  • Who needs to hear your story and what will they want to hear?

These questions help small project teams identify outcomes and figure out how to measure them. If you want a larger group to participate in your outcomes-planning discussion, consider adapting the Nine Whys exercise from Liberating Structures.

Once the outcomes are identified, you’re ready to check the logical connection between your program strategies and your planned results. The logic model is a great tool for this stage of planning. The NEO’s booklet Planning Outcomes-Based Programs provides detailed guidance for how to create project logic models.

Yogi Berra famously said “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  I would paraphrase that to say “When you come to a fork in the road, check your outcomes and proceed.”

Image of the author ABOUT Cindy Olney
Cindy Olney is the Assistant Director of the NNLM Evaluation Office. She leads NNLM's evaluation efforts, designs evaluation methods, and guides analysis and reporting of evaluation findings.

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This project is funded by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Health (NIH) under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012343 with the University of Washington.

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