Introduction to outcomes theory

List of outcomes theory articles

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## Summary

People use many different terms when working with outcomes systems (results, monitoring, performance management, evaluation, evidence-based pratice and strategic planning systems) and building outcomes models (logic models, results chains, strategy maps, intervention logics). This is partially a result of the range of different disciplines involved. Outcomes theory attempts to identify the smallest number of terms essential to do what needs to be done when doing outcomes-related work. One of outcomes theory’s insights is that the purpose of a number of terminological distinctions (such as vision / mission, final outcomes / intermediate outcomes, process / outcomes distinctions, outcomes / impacts) can be better achieved by working directly with a visual outcomes model and showing the causal position of boxes visually within the model. This approach avoids having to insist that stakeholders use specific terms (e.g. the outcome / impact distinction) in very specific ways. The diversity of the disciplines and settings in which people work with outcomes, plus the widespread continued common sense interpretation of a term such as an outcome, makes tight language control a somewhat futile strategy at the current time. Given that the same results can be achieved by just using a visual model, it is suggested that little energy should be put into arguing about terminological distinctions at the moment. (The substance of this article formed the basis for: Duignan, P. (2009) Rejecting the traditional outputs, intermediate and final outcomes logic modeling approach and building more stakeholder-friendly visual outcomes models. American Evaluation Association Conference, Orlando, Florida, 11-14 November 2009.)

## Introduction

Many different disciplines are involved in working with outcomes systems (results, monitoring, performance management, evaluation, strategic planning and evidence-based practice systems) and building outcomes models (logic models, results-chains, program theories, intervention logics, logframes, strategy maps, ends-means diagrams etc). These disciplines include managers, performance managers, evaluators, strategic planners, policy analysts, economists, HR specialists, quality control specialists and others. Because of the number of professions involved, there is a great diversity of language used by those working with outcomes systems.

As with any theory attempting to give a the simplest accurate account of the world, one of the primary tasks of outcomes theory is to reduce any unnecessary language used when working with outcomes down to the minimum number of terms necessary for working effectively with outcomes systems. One of the insights of outcomes theory is that the number of terms which are needed can be minimized by working directly with visual outcomes models. As will be discussed below, some of the terms which are used in traditional outcomes systems are used in order to perform functions which can more easily be performed using a visual outcomes model. For a discussion of why visual models should be used over other types of models see Causal models – how to structure, represent and communicate them. Given the current diversity of language and disciplines involved in working with outcomes, it is preferable to eliminate the need to use a term (for instance by achieving the same effect by working visually) rather than attempting to force often very busy and distracted stakeholders to use terms in very precise ways. Such terminologicaldiscipline is particularly difficult where there are ongoing common sense meanings of a word like outcome which will persist regardless of the demands by certain people that people use the term in certain ways.At the moment, a significant amount of the time spent when working on outcomes is spent in protracted discussions with stakeholders about the use of particular terms. This terminological argument is largely a waste of time if you move to a fully visual approach to working with outcomes.

## A small ‘toolkit’ (a set of terms and ways of working) for use with outcomes systems of any type

One of the challenges for outcomes theory is to come up with the smallest possible ‘toolkit’ for use in talking about and working with outcomes systems. This toolkit should consist of both a set of terms (as few as possible) and, equally importantly, ways of working, which will allow stakeholders to do everything they need to do with outcomes sets.

As with any toolkit, what is needed within it depends on what it is going to be used for. Outcomes theory identifies the basic set of needs which stakeholders have when dealing with outcomes of any sort. It then identifies the most efficient tool for meeting each of these needs.

The basic set of stakeholder needs when working with outcomes is as follows:

**1. Having a way of indicating hierarchical causal structure within an outcomes set. **In traditional systems this is done by using distinctions between various terms such as *processes,**intermediate outcomes,**outcomes*, *impacts* etc.In an outcomes theory approach, the the structure of the outcomes set is communicated, not by using labels, but by always using a drawn outcomes model as the central organizing element for an outcomes system. In addition to the advantage that this visual approach helps rapid communication of the structure of the model to stakeholders, a drawn model also allows two things to be done which mean that a number of traditional terms used within outcomes systems are no longer needed. These two things are:

**2. Having a way of making a distinction between an outcome and its measurement. **One distinction which it is important to keep clear in all outcomes systems is the distinction between a step or outcome and its measurement. This is done within outcomes theory by using the term *indicator *to describe a measurement of a step or outcome. In a visual model a step or outcome and its measurement should be kept visually separate (e.g. by representing the indicator as a separate icon).

**3. Having a way of differentiating those changes in steps or outcomes which are controllable by an intervention and those which are not. **This is dealt with in outcomes theory by making a distinction between *controllable indicators *and *not-necessarily controllable indicators*. The beauty of a controllable indicator is that the mere measurement that it has occurred proves that it was caused by the party that controls it. Sometimes the*controllable*/ *not-necessarily controllable* distinction can be thought of in terms of an *attributable* / *not*–*necessarily attributable* distinction. [4]

**4. Having a way of dealing with the question of what a program should be held accountable for. **This is usually dealt with in outcomes systems by just holding programs and organizations directly accountable for *controllable indicators *as defined in 3. above. In the public sector it usually makes sense to restrict direct accountability to only controllable indicators. This can be accompanied with the requirement that parties are in addition accountable for showing that they are focusing their activity on influencing priority non-controllable outcomes. In outcomes theory this is called being accountable for showing ‘line-of-sight’. However in the private sector individuals and organizations are sometimes held accountable for not-necessarily controllable indicators, for more detail see Contracting for outcomes.

In traditional, non-visual, approaches to working with outcomes, the term *outputs *is usually used to meet this need for clearly defining what a program or organization will be held directly accountable for. An output is a final good or service produced by an organization. It has all of the benefits of a controllable indicator in that its mere measurement means that it was caused by a particular party (assuming that no fraud is involved). An output is subtly different from a controllable indicator in that a controllable indicator can reside further along an outcomes model than an output. For instance, an *increase in knowledge by workshop participants* may be a controllable indicator for a workshop trainer. However, his or her output would just be *running one workshop*.

It should be noted that controllable indicators can also be located further down an outcomes model than an outputs (e.g. *the room having been booked for the workshop* would be a controllable indicator for the trainer but not an output according to the technical definition of an output as a *final* good or service produced by a party). It is often the case within outcomes systems that outputs are regarded as the things that a particular party is directly accountable for. Outcomes theory would suggest that a clearer way of thinking about the issue of direct accountability in an outcomes-focused age is to make parties directly accountable for controllable indicators. This means that direct accountability may rise above the level of outputs if there are controllable indicators above them.

There is no technical problem with identifying outputs within a visual outcomes model, this can be done by simply marking up those boxes (or indicators if one is thinking in terms of indicators) which are outputs. However it is a technicalvisualizationmistake which is almost always made, to require that outputs to be located at a certain position within a visual outcomes model. Typically this mistake is made within a visual model when outputs are restricted to a ‘column’ or row in a visual outcomes model. To do this is to attempt to use the same visualization mode (horizontal position in a left-to-right outcomes model) to represent both the flow of causality and whether or not a box is an output. Forcing output boxes into a particular column within a visual outcomes model distorts the natural flow of causality and confuses the reader who is looking for the left-to-right dimension to represet the flow of causality.

**5. Having a way of showing where the current focus of priorities and activity is within an outcomes model. **This is done visually either by just highlighting (with color, letter codes etc.) the steps in an outcomes model which are current priorities for effort (e.g. A, B, C, BAU – Business As Usual). Or visually mapping activities (projects) back onto the higher-levels of an outcomes model which shows common outcomes for a number of activities or projects.

**6. Having a way of integrating evaluation questions asked about an outcomes model with monitoring activity being undertaken on it. **It is important to be able to integrate evaluation activity undertaken in regard to an outcomes model with monitoring activity. Items 2, 3 and 4 above are more concerned with monitoring – the routine collection of information about program performance. In contrast, evaluation activity is often a more one-off, or in-depth, activity focused on specific questions. In an outcomes theory approach this is all dealt with by mapping evaluation questions back onto the outcomes model and by using the framework provided by the Five building-blocks of outcomes systems.

## The five key technical terms needed in the ‘toolkit’

Using the approach set out above, which combines a few selected technical terms with relying heavily on a visual approach to working with outcomes, there are only five key terms which need to be taught to stakeholders to meet most of the needs set out above. These five key terms are:

A **step**– any ’cause’ (i.e. something which makes something else happen) which appears in an outcomes model

An **outcome**– the top step in an outcomes model (there may be more than one of these) these can be referred to as the highest-level boxes if one objects to the use of the word *outcome* (e.g. because they think that the highest level should be called *impacts*).

An **in****dicator**– a measure of a step or outcome.

An **controllable indicator**– an indicator for which changes are controlled by a particular intervention.

An **evaluation question**– a question about aspects of the program (e.g. whether it is, or is not improving outcomes).

These terms are all that are needed in cases where a program is being held to account only for controllable indicators. There are, of course, many other terms used in outcomes theory for specific purposes (see the definitions list ) but the five terms defined above are all that is needed in most cases to successfully build outcomes models stakeholders meet needs set out above.

If you want to go even further and apply a radically simplistic approach based only on visual modeling, you can, when working with appropriate outcomes and evaluation software such as DoView® reduce the number of technical terms you used down to only a single technical term. You can do this by just saying ‘lets put the things you are doing in boxes’ (instead of mentioning the terms *steps *and *outcomes*) and ‘let’s use the yellow element (the indicator icon you can insert in DoView®) to show how we can measure what’s in your boxes (instead of mentioning the term *indicators*). Then ‘let’s put in questions about the model’, using the green evaluation question icons. This takes the number of specifically defined technical terms needed to work successfully with outcomes down to the only one left of the five above –*controllable **indicators *which you need to use to explain what it is, and what it is not, appropriate to hold most (public and third sector programs, and much of the private sector) accountable for.

## Resources for working with groups in this way

Resources are available to assist in practically working with groups in this way. Refer to DoView.com/plan and OutcomesCentral.org and the video below.

Video: Building outcomes models with a group |

## Conclusion

It has been argued that with five relatively simple terms, and relying on using a visual outcomes models, most stakeholder needs in regard to working with outcomes can be met. This is the practical approach used when working with the applied version of outcomes theory – DoView Visual Planning and Management.

Please comment on this article

This article is based on the developing area of outcomes theory which is still in a relatively early stage of development. Please critique any of the arguments laid out in this article so that they can be improved through critical examination and reflection.

Citing this article

Duignan, P. (2009). *Simplifying the use of terms when working with outcomes. **Outcomes Theory Knowledge Base Article No. 236. (https://outcomestheory.wordpress.com/article/simplifying-terms-used-when-working-2m7zd68aaz774-73/).* The substance of this article formed the basis for the following presentation and the argument can be cited as: Duignan, P. (2009) Rejecting the traditional outputs, intermediate and final outcomes logic modeling approach and building more stakeholder-friendly visual outcomes models. American Evaluation Association Conference, Orlando, Florida, 11-14 November 2009.)

[If you are reading this in a PDF or printed copy, the web page version may have been updated].

## References

- For information on how to do such prioritization and mapping of projects or activities onto an outcomes model see Duignan, P. (2010). Duignan’s Outcomes-Focused Visual Strategic Planning for Public and Third Sector Organizations. Outcomes Theory Knowledge Base Article No. 283. (https://outcomestheory.wordpress.com/article/duignan-s-outcomes-focused-visual-2m7zd68aaz774-162/).

Reference Link - See Duignan, P. (2010). M&E Systems – How to Build an affordable simple monitoring and evaluation system using a visual approach. Outcomes Theory Knowledge Base Article No. 267. ( https://outcomestheory.wordpress.com/article/m-e-systems-how-to-build-an-affordable-2m7zd68aaz774-134/ )

Reference Link - Disclosure: The author is involved in the development of DoView outcomes and evaluation software and has developed the DoView Visual Planning approach.
- In some contexts this can be thought of in terms of attribution and so the distinction is made between demonstrably attributable indicators and not-necessarily demonstrably attributable indicators. By definition if an indicator is controllable by an intervention and if it has been measured then it is attributable to that intervention. See the article below on the features of steps and outcomes within an outcomes model.

Reference Link