The word outcome does not need to be defined to undertake effective outcomes work

Academic references to outcomes theory. Wikipedia entry.

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The principle

By using a properly constructed visual outcomes model when working with an outcomes system, you can fully specify all of the key features of boxes within that model. This means that having a definitive definition of the word outcome is not essential to working successfully with outcomes systems.  

The problem

One area of contentious discussion when working with outcomes systems (strategic planning, performance measurement, evaluation, delegating/contracting systems) is the definition of the word outcome. There are three issues around the definition of this word: first, getting a consensus definiton of the word; second, differentiating it from other words such as results, goals; and, third, generally enforcing the use of a particular definition of the word by those working with outcomes systems. Looking at discussions about the definition of outcomes in technical and general professional social networks shows that these three issues are continuing to create significant debate.

The solution

In any discipline, it is only useful to expend intellectual effort attempting to define a word if the use of that word is essential to the work the discipline has to do. 

Outcomes theory relies on a particular type of visual outcomes model for conceptual clarity and for practically working with outcomes systems. The use of such a model allows one to formally specify all of the key features of boxes within such a model without having to use the word outcome in the process. Therefore, somewhat counter-intuitively, one can easily undertake outcomes work without having to specify the word outcome

If one really insists on having an operating definition of an outcome then in outcome theory terms an outcome(s) can be defined as the box(es) on the extreme right of a visual outcomes model.

This is not to say that there are not pragmatic reasons to use the word outcome when doing outcomes work. This fact is obvious in the use of the word outcomes in the title of outcomes theory. Various boxes within a visual outcomes model can be marked up as outcomes if this serves a useful communication purpose. 

Of course this also does not mean that it is theoretically impossible to develop an adequate defintion of the word outcome, nor that it is ultimately impossible to generally enforce the use of a single definition of the word outcome - just that people may decided to not put much energy into either of these pursuits at this point in time when one can alternatively just use a visual outcomes model to achieve the same ends.


In the example below, raised in a social media discussion between outcomes experts about the difference between an output and an outcome, the visual outcomes model shown below is being used to clearly specify the accountabilities of the party running the intervention (an arts event). Note there is no need to use the word outcome within this visual specification. In practice, outcomes models such as this are simply attached as PDFs to contracts and are able to fully specify the party’s accountability without the use of the word outcomes, or for that matter the use of the word outputs

In this case, the party running the arts event is being held accountable for the indicators in red with a @ next to them. There is no theoretical reason why accountability has to be struck with these particular indicators. The level at which accountability is struck should ultimately be determined by some sort of contractual negotiations between a funder and a provider. 

The boxes for which a provider is willing to be accountable will be determined, amongst other things, but how much they are getting paid to run a particular program. In general the higher the level of accountability being sort by a funder, the higher the payment that will be sought by a provider. In essence this is a contractual discussion about who will carry risk and how that risk is priced. The risk being referred to here is the risk of whether or not the higher-level boxes will actually occur.

In the example below, it could be that for the amount of payment being provided, the provider is only willing to be held accountable for up to the indicator below the second box marked ‘Well run event’. If this were the case the outcomes model (in this case a DoView® Results Roadmap) would be marked-up with only the first two indicators on the left in red and they would be the only indicators with a @ next to them.

Regardless of the level of accountability indicated by the indicators in red marked with a @, the DoView outcomes model could be attached as a PDF to the contract to clearly specify the level of accountability of the provider. The advantage of this over the traditional approach of just providing a list of contract deliverables is that using the DoView approach the deliverables are shown in the context of the higher-level boxes within the outcomes model. Note that there is no indicator for one of the final boxes on the right. Within the outcomes theory approach there does not necessarily need to be an indicator for each box in an outcome model. 

A copy of this model in DoView file format is available here, a PDF here, and a trial version of DoView software is available here. Note in this DoView outcomes model there are no drill-down links to other pages.

Duignan, P. (2009d). Using Outcomes Theory to Solve Important Conceptual and Practical Problems in Evaluation, Monitoring and Performance Management Systems. American Evaluation Association Conference 2009, Orlando, Florida, 11-14 November 2009.