Cut & Dry Version: It’s not Process > Outcomes, it’s Process & Outcomes. There is a feedback loop between Process and Outcomes which allows Outcomes to drive the Process and vice versa. One major filter that might encourage you to focus on the outcome more than the process is the element of time. Outcomes are important for short term success, while focus on Process is requisite for long term success. You cannot arrive at the long term without surviving the short term.
The Long Sunday Afternoon Version:
By now I’m sure you’ve read about the importance of working on your Process > Product. Just a simple google search will yield multiple hits on this very topic. A couple fantastic reads on this can be found here & here [pdf].
To the best of my understanding, in order to achieve long term success one needs more than a shiny product; they also need an iterative process that efficiently and effectively produces the desired product or outcome. This direct progression from process to product has been repeated ad nauseum, and with good reason!
So, why another article on the same beaten down topic? One reason: attempts to focus on the process while hoping to effect your desired outcome don’t always work. I will attempt to provide an understanding of two very important elements of this process that are usually left out of the equation. First, let’s quickly introduce the Principle of Reflexivity.
According to George Soros the principle of reflexivity is in effect when “distorted views can influence the situation to which they relate because false views lead to inappropriate actions”. He goes on:
For instance, treating drug addicts as criminals creates criminal behavior. It misconstrues the problem and interferes with the proper treatment of addicts. As another example, declaring that government is bad tends to make for bad government.
makes reflexivity a very broad phenomenon that typically takes the form of feedback loops. The participants’ views influence the course of events, and the course of events influences the participants’ views. The influence is continuous and circular; that is what turns it into a feedback loop.
This same reflexive quality exists between Process & Outcomes. Not only does your process yield an outcome, but the nature of your outcomes feed back into your process by encouraging Process modification. It seems so obvious that nobody will likely deny this effect; but it gets interesting… more interesting.
Outcomes aren’t always entirely predictable in terms of their 1st order effects, let alone secondary consequences. They are usually multivariant and require a reiterative process to distill the actions needed to effect a certain outcome. Now, consider this: the outcomes may have a positive or negative effect on the reiterative process. So, which is the driver here? The Process? Or The Outcomes?
Clinicians (Outcomes) and Researchers (Process) – including the armchair variety – need to recognize the recursive nature of Process & Outcomes and place their communications within this context. This will also reduce an often-cited error within the medical profession; as N. N. Taleb says, “Doctors most commonly get mixed up between absence of evidence and evidence of absence.” (Emphasis mine)
Let’s contextualize this. You’re a skilled & very capable physical therapist who recognizes a pattern in the treatment of a certain classification of symptoms. Your treatment (let’s call it treatment X) yields positive results repeatedly within bounds of these classification of symptoms. While an explanation is lacking, the outcome is obvious & repeatable. What is it that informs the process in this situation? It is purely outcomes based analysis that feeds back into the treatment process.
The concept of “Phenomenology” quietly slipped into play, so let’s define it according to Taleb from Antifragile:
Phenomenology is the observation of an empirical regularity without a visible theory for it.
Phenomenology, being blatantly practical, applies to and is found in basic daily activities of life. For example, you may not be able to explain (or describe) why or how a certain spice flavors your food, but you recognize the flavor and it makes your meals so much more delightful. You know how it should taste in the end; all you do (without thinking too deeply about it) is modify & iterate your process of incorporating the spice until you know when and how much to recreate into your delicious concoction.
This feedback loop from Outcomes to Process is essential in streamlining future (and short-term) decision-making. While explanations (Process) may be lacking, the repeated positive outcomes provide validity on its own. This feedback is either dismissed via circular reasoning that exempts the potential for honest exploration, or is outright ignored on grounds of lack of evidence when the evidence of validity is present in the repeatable outcome itself.
Recognizing and applying the feedback loop from Outcomes to Process has no standard game plan to follow, no studies can capture the essence of what the outcomes could be and how they might be applied to your process. I believe this is where the “Art” resides – incorporating Outcomes to modify and drive your Process. So, the next time you hear a debate on whether “it” is an “art” or a “science”, you have a framework to see both sides of the coin and realize that they are part of the same cycle. Science is the Process, while the Art lies in incorporating Outcomes back into your Process.
A major factor in the feedback loop between Process & Outcomes is the effect of time. Focusing on the process more than outcome requires the luxury of time to allow for an iterative process that gradually chips away inefficiencies. When running a business, start-up, or any venture with your reputation at stake, time is usually of the essence. Many minimize the Process to produce an Outcome to be molded by the trials of business & consumer response. A start-up without a product will likely get stranded before the running even started. A business without customers will likely fail in-spite of a fluid process. You can have an efficient process, and even correctly predict the outcome, and still be lured to shipwreck by the sirens of time. The best of the best still have to face the tyranny of Father Time.
Time is just one factor; there are likely one or two other factors (physical resources, etc) that might be equally significant in a particular situation.
Over the long run focusing on the Process is a prudent choice, however, you need to give yourself the opportunity to experience the long run by surviving the many short runs. The long run doesn’t matter if you don’t make it past the short run.
Recognizing the importance of the reciprocal (& reflexive) nature of Process & Outcomes can alleviate friction in seeing the big picture while simultaneously inviting novel approaches (& possible solutions) to old problems. Such vision and understanding requires clear and honest communication within the context of this feedback cycle filtered through the lens of time.
Outcomes are important for short term success, while focus on Process is requisite for long term success. You cannot arrive at the long term without surviving the short term.