Do not assign incompatible outcomes (’serving two masters’) principle

Academic references to outcomes theory


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The principle

Before assigning an outcome to an outcomes system (e.g. an institution) one must ensure that pursuing the new outcome will not compromise the outcomes system’s ways of working in pursuit of outcomes it has already been assigned.

The problem

Outcomes systems (e.g. an institutions) are assigned outcomes by funders and control agencies. Funders and control agencies can inadvertently assign to an outcomes system (e.g. an institution) incompatible sets of outcomes. 

The solution

Full outcomes models should be built that detail what steps will need to be taken to pursue the different outcomes being assigned to an outcomes system (e.g. an institution). The boxes in the models will detail the steps that are likely to be required to achieve outcomes. These boxes can then be examined to determine if there are  irreconcilable tensions between them.  

If tensions between steps are identified, they may be able to be remedied by: proving additional resources so that the outcomes system (e.g. institution’s) work in pursuit of its original outcomes can be pursued; putting in place institutional mechanisms to protect particular ways of working; or implementing monitoring processes to ensure that the outcomes system does not focus on one outcome excessively at the expense of another. See the Delegating trade-offs principle for more discussion of this.

However, at the end of the day it sometimes is the case that an outcomes system (e.g. an institution) should not be assigned a new outcome because it conflicts too much with the way it needs to work in order to achieve outcomes it has already been assigned.


National school systems are assigned explicit and implicit outcomes and are then expected to pursue them. Two outcomes that have traditionally been assigned, but which can be at odds with each other are: maximising the learning of pupils versus determining the relative ranking of pupils' ability for use outside of the school system. Since it is unlikely that any country will stop demanding these two traditional outcomes of schools, schools just have to work with the tension this entails. 

Sometimes further outcomes are assigned to schools, for instance: improving the achievement of students who have been disadvantaged by inequality in the wider society. It is appealing to assign schools this outcome if you think wider inequality in society is: inevitable, desirable, or cannot be fixed by other means.

There is potentially a tension between providing an education system focused on helping mainstream ability students and one that is focused on improving the ability of those who have been affected by inequality. It may be the case that this cannot be done within the one institution. In any event, one would suspect that adding this outcome to schools outcomes would require inputing a significant additional level of resources in order to avoid schools initial mission being jeapodised.