The eternal battle between outcomes and processes

by The Editor

ARTICLE: What is more important – an outcome or the process designed to achieve it? How you answer that question will say a lot about you. Those primarily concerned with outcomes are usually responsible for change and, with it, progress. Those overly concerned with processes usually stifle progress, unable as they are to understand its purpose in the first place (to generate an outcome) – or to adapt when it fails. South Africa today places far too much emphasis on process. Indeed, in politics we have a process for everything (a tribunal, a committee, a review, a commission, an investigation, etc) but when it comes to outcomes – and with that accoutability – well, they are far harder to find. So it is worth exploring the relationship between these two things, to try and better understand the role each plays.

The eternal battle between outcomes and processes

By: Gareth van Onselen

4 April 2012

Heath Robinson, the famous English cartoonist, would sketch elaborate machines designed to achieve the most simple tasks, one of the best illustrations of how a process can come to overshadow the outcome it was designed to achieve.

An outcome is a litmus test. Its nature tells you two things: the degree to which one has achieved a goal and the effectiveness of the process designed to achieve it.

Societies that embrace excellence cherish outcomes because they are a euphemism for progress and betterment: a result which, even if unacceptable, allows one to gauge position, to recalibrate and to map the way forward. Societies mired in mediocrity fixate on processes because they fear outcomes and all that they represent. For them, processes are an excuse, to divert attention and negate the conflict that often necessitates a hard decision.

Thus, for a society marked by low standards, the relationship between an outcome and the process designed to achieve it is often a relationship between excellence and mediocrity. The former, the concern of those who understand that in order to advance or develop a society needs constantly to strive to move closer toward an ideal; the latter, the obsession of those seduced by the unthreatening and timeless world that is the status quo. A battle no less, between the outcomes-orientated and the procedurally-possessed.

This battle plays itself out as follows: Any outcome requires effort to achieve. So it is by nature mediocrity’s enemy. And mediocrity will act to prevent its achievement or reduce its impact. It does this by shifting emphasis away from the outcome and towards the process designed to achieve it. Indeed, when mediocrity is firmly established in an organisation, the nature of any given process is elevated even to the point where the outcome is no longer relevant at all. The process itself becomes the outcome. The form of that process, its structure, its composition, its timelines, its parameters and its procedural-correctness become all-important. Every effort is poured into ensuring that these requirements are all fully indulged and interrogated. And the initial intended outcome fades from memory.

This tendency is reinforced by bureaucracy, which acts in turn to give any process a life of its own – one independent of the outcome that necessitated its creation in the first place. A favourite trick in this regard is for mediocrity, under the pretence that it speaks on behalf of the majority, to allow one voice of dissent to be used as a pseudo-moral veto, negating any democratic outcome by elevating discontent above consensus. And so mediocrity is the enemy of legitimate decisions.

There are key phrases and words which mediocrity relies on to shore up its cause – all distorted for the purpose of interrogating process and redirecting one’s focus away from outcomes: ‘inclusive’ (as in, was the process inclusive?), ‘fair’ (was it fair?), ‘consultation’ (was everyone consulted?) and ‘thorough’ (was it thorough enough?) among many others. Any outcome is held hostage to such questions. To those who would strive for excellence, these are watchwords, to be approached with caution; to those caught in mediocrity’s embrace, they are weasel words, used to mask one’s true intent.

Thus mediocrity reverses best practice: instead of the outcome determining the process needed to achieve it, the outcome is warped to comply with the process. Mediocrity takes all that is noble about compromise and turns it in on itself, bringing its ability to dilute excellence to the fore, emphasising form over substance and technicalities over principle. In doing so it drains resources and redirects effort to those things that detract from advancement and stifle development; an enervating inertia born of fear, which thrives in bureaucracy and is spread by apathy and indifference.

To maintain a focus on outcomes is difficult and often trying, but it is the difference between excellence and mediocrity, and progress and regress in turn.

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