Why We Struggle With Actions Versus Results

by Stacey Barr |

Goals should be result-oriented, by definition. But we often see action-oriented goals in strategic plans. Why does this confusion happen?

Appreciating the difference between results and actions is vitally important. Credit: https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/Everste

The difference between the words ‘result’ and ‘action’ are pretty clear if we look up their classic
definitions. For the word ‘result’, the definitions include:

“a thing that is caused or produced by something else; a consequence or outcome” — provided by Oxford Languages, when you Google ‘result definition’

“something that happens or exists because of something else” with synonyms including effect, consequence and outcome — Cambridge Dictionary

“something that happens as a consequence; outcome” and “a desirable or beneficial consequence, outcome, or effect” — Dictionary.com

And the same for what the word ‘action’ means:

“the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim” and “a thing done; an act” — provided by Oxford Languages, when you Google ‘action definition’

“the process of doing something, especially when dealing with a problem or difficulty” and “something that you do” — Cambridge Dictionary

“something done or performed; act; deed” — Dictionary.com

Why is the distinction so important to include in an article on a performance measurement blog? Because somehow, some way, these two words are muddled when we write strategic or operational goals. Some goals read as results, but too many read as actions.

Goals are supposed to be results-oriented.

The importance of making the distinction between results and actions becomes clear when we look at a few dictionary definitions of what the word ‘goal’ means:

“the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result” — provided by Oxford Languages, when you Google ‘goal definition’

“an aim or purpose” with synonyms including aspiration, intention, and objective — Cambridge Dictionary

“the result or achievement toward which effort is directed” — Dictionary.com

Actions lead to results.

Actions are taken because we want to create specific desired results.

Desired results are achieved only through specific actions.

Results and actions are not the same thing. And that’s why the most classic of strategic planning templates makes space for both results and actions (in this example, the space is in Column 2 and Column 5). But we too often see action-oriented goals in strategic plans.

Some cannot see the difference between results-oriented goals and action-oriented goals.

One of the primary reasons we have trivial performance measures is the confusion between results and actions.

When our goals are written as actions, we end up measuring how much effort or time or resources we spend doing the action. Like these:

  • “Upgrade financial software by June” leads to measures like “Upgrade delivered by June 30”
  • “Provide analytics training” leads to measures like “Number of analysts trained”
  • “Introduce a new innovation each month” leads to measures like “Number of innovative ideas generated”

With action-oriented measures like these, we miss out on the insights of measures that evidence how well we achieved the results we intended to achieve by those actions. For performance measurement to be meaningful, result must be separated from action.

Make the difference between results and actions clear.

Despite the above definitions being so clear, it’s still a struggle for many people to see how their goals are really actions, not results.

Why does this confusion happen so often? When I research this question, I can’t find much at all about it. But I see it all the time in our PuMP workshops. And our PuMP community talk about this struggle all the time!

Because the difference feels so subtle to those who struggle with it, experience might be the best way to help. Experience, particularly when repeated over a few times, can make the subtle less so.

Decide if the goal is action-oriented.

When you see or suspect a goal that is action-oriented, one big clue will be the type of measures that are first suggested for it, like the examples above. Those measures will be counts of activities, or milestones of completion, or totals of time or resources spent.

Another clue, while not conclusive, is when the goal starts with a ‘doing verb’, like these: provide, upgrade, introduce, implement, build, train, educate, review, communicate, and promote. ‘Changing verbs’, like improve or enhance or increase, are less indicative of action-oriented goals, so take a closer look at those!

In general, if you can imagine a time when your goal is done or finished then it’s likely action-oriented. If your goal cannot be done or finished, but only continually improved, then it’s more likely result-oriented.

Can you now see any action-oriented goals in your strategic or operational plans?

Use ‘why?’

When you have an action-oriented goal, it hopefully exists for a reason. That reason will be a result it is supposed to impact on, or make better. That’s the logic we need to build, and the word ‘why’ is the trigger. It might go something like this:

Q: Why do we want to “upgrade financial software by June”?

A: The current software is too slow and makes reporting take too long, and errors slip through.

Q: What change do we want with the upgraded software?

A: We want financial reporting to be fast and accurate.

Guess what the result-oriented goal is?

Can you build a logic flow like this for one of your action-oriented goals?

Use analogies.

Our USA PuMP Contractor, Brook Rolter, uses the easy-to-understand analogy of retirement. We want results like more flexibility to visit grandchildren, spare time for hobbies, and enough money to travel. The actions that get us to those results include routine saving, good investment decisions, and healthy habits.

Can you think of an analogy that might work with your colleagues?

***

Don’t give up on the quest for result-oriented goals. Yes, action matters. but without a clear result to aim for, action becomes a terrible waste of the time and effort we have such limited supplies of.

Appreciating the difference between results and actions is vitally important to find meaningful performance measures. Measuring action does not lead to better results. [tweet this]

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  1. Peter Ndaa says:

    Process thinking is another way of coming up with result-oriented goals. When you have a goal, start by identifying the sequence of steps or activities you need to take to achieve the goal. Then, ‘walk through’ each step, converting its inputs to outputs and check if the outcome or impact of the final output of your process is your goal.

    For example, if your goal is “to provide equal opportunities for women”, then the following would be the activities and their respective inputs and outputs necessary to deliver this goal: Input (Policies + People on position) à Identify Gender Gaps à Output (Policy Gaps + Roles with Inequality) à Develop Plan to Close Gaps à Output (Gender Mainstreaming Plan) à Implement Plan à Outputs (Revised Policies + Gaps Filled with Women)

    The effect of Revised Policies would be to create a “work environment that is friendly to women” while the effect of Gaps Filled with Women is having “women at all levels of the business.”

  2. Steyn Barry says:

    Goals, outcomes, future states, stocks, and results. They are realized largely through action. Without action they just are what they are.
    We repeatedly apply assumptions about how actions will determine or influence outcomes and results. When we only measure goals we must wait for information until a point in time to reflect or assess if a desired outcome was realized or not. Only then will we know if our assumptions about cause and effect were correct. The longer the time between action and results, the higher the risk. Measuring actions does not guarantee success, but in the absence of other information it does strengthen our ability to predict outcomes.
    Without suitable context measures have limited value.
    Measures of stock (outcomes, results) are the final yardstick, but knowledge about flow (action) are useful to predict and navigate towards the destination.

  3. Martin Klubeck says:

    Nice. When building a strategic plan, the first step is I facilitate a process in which we identify all the goals (what do you want to achieve?) and then label them: Why, What, How, and Measures. The Why (usually rare) lead toward Mission, Vision, and sometimes very high level goals. The What lead to Goals and objectives. The How leads to Tasks and processes. And Measures are measures.

    We have to label them because although we attempted identifying the goals (what they want to achieve), they invariably list “everything possible” – Goals, Objectives, Tasks, Measures, and sometimes their mission.

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