Being Cause in the Matter of Outcomes and Not Just Tasks

In the course of a workday, we all have something that doesn’t go the way we want it to. There are generally two reasons why we don’t get the outcome we want:

  1. Someone important wasn’t committed to that outcome.


  1. More likely, they were committed to something – just something else.


I think that most managers could say they work with a committed team – otherwise you would already have found ways to weed out those who weren’t. That means mishaps or low performance can more likely be tracked back to the fact that your team wasn’t committed to achieving the “right” thing – not that they weren’t committed to their jobs. Specifically, I think that most mishaps in the workplace result when we commit to solving tasks rather than focusing on the desired outcomes.


Let’s walk through an example to show what I mean.


Imagine that you work for a tech company in customer support. You are also truly committed to your job: you always answer the phone when it rings and speak pleasantly with the caller. Now, let’s pretend that your phone rings:


“Hello, you’ve reached Ralph at ITX. How can I help you?” you might say.


Now let’s extend our example and say that the person who called you responds: “Can you help me reset my password?”


“I’d be glad to help you with that,” you might say. “I’ll get right on it. Meanwhile, I hope you have a great day!” You then hang up.


All in, I’d say you did a nice job: you made the customer feel welcome and you agreed to solve their problem right away. Or did you?


What if, for example, your customer went back to their computer and tried to log in again – only to fail yet again. What happens then? Most likely, they’ll be forced to call into the customer service line yet again to ask for help – only this time they’re going to be even more frustrated.


Can you see what we might have done differently to avoid this situation?


The point is that the customer’s main issue was that he or she couldn’t get into their system. That was the outcome they needed help with. Changing their password was just a task they thought would help them get there.


But as a customer service rep, you showed only the commitment to the task – changing the password – rather than committing to the outcome that the customer actually needed: accessing their system.


How could this scenario have been played out differently if you had been committed to the outcome rather than the task?


What if, after your customer calls, you then suggest something like: “Why don’t you try logging in again. I’ll stay on the phone and see if it works. Oh – it still won’t let you in. Let me try something else.”


See the difference? Tasks are just tools to help you reach the kinds of outcomes you want. Once you’ve shifted your focus from the task to the outcome, you stand a far better chance of actually addressing your customer’s primary need, which is a big component of establishing a workable relationship with them.


This is what I mean by making the distinction of being “the cause of the matter” of an outcome versus just a task. That’s ultimately what creates the most value for the customer and for us.


Now, I understand that sometimes just changing the password does actually create value for the customer. But, when it doesn’t, you’ve wasted your time and the customer’s time – let alone the cost of the call itself. Add all that up and you’ve actually subtracted value from the relationship by focusing on the task rather than the outcome that truly adds value for the customer: getting them into their system. So why take the risk of a negative outcome in the first place?


Let’s look at another example. What if you worked in our company’s accounts receivable department and you learned that we have a customer who has an unpaid balance of more than 90 days. Your job is to collect money for the company, so you send an email to that customer alerting them to the balance along with a request to pay it. You may even call them up and, when they don’t answer, leave them a message asking them to pay. The result: you can place two checkmarks next to the two tasks you completed. “You can’t blame me,” you might now tell yourself. “I tried.”


But what if the customer continues to not pay? My good friend Gregg Gordon has a good way of framing this kind of scenario. He asks his employees what else they would do if someone personally owed them $1 million. Invariably, the employee can come up with several more ideas about how to get in touch with that person – including showing up on their doorstep everyday until they got paid. That’s being committed to being the cause in the matter of an outcome!


Now I recognize that collecting money isn’t the most fun job in the world – it’s uncomfortable at best. And that’s why we often see why people are willing to commit to a task – sending an email or leaving a voicemail – because it’s easier to do than, say, showing up on someone’s doorstep. But that’s also the power of asking someone to commit to delivering an outcome.


There may even be times that the outcome you want someone to commit to is actually impossible to achieve. If you tell your service tech that you need that computer server up and running by the morning, for instance, he might do everything and anything in his power to deliver that outcome – only to fail because of something beyond his control.


But that’s OK because he exhausted every task first before we actually learned it was impossible. Seth Godin has an interesting take on this where he distinguishes things that we believe are impossible from those that are nearly impossible. Just by adding that word – “nearly” – Godin shows us that we can change a problem from something to avoid into a challenge we can commit to, even possibly enjoy.


The takeaway for us, then, is that when we can get our team committed to the outcomes we want, irrespective of the circumstances and the number of tasks we might need to take to achieve them, that’s how we’ll create truly workable situations.

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