Processes, Outcomes, and Goals

A few years ago. I was in a leadership retreat at which we talked about our efforts to address systemic racism.  As one of the ”elders” in the group, I shared a description of some projects in the late 1990s and early 2000s called Unlearning racism, which included honoring black WWII veterans, forming a sister congregation relationship with a more diverse group, spending time with leaders in the local African American community to see how we could be connective and supportive, etc.  When I finished my description, the person running the meeting asked, “And how many  new African-American members did you acquire?” “None, “ I said, “That wasn’t the point.”  I understood where he was coming from He and I and others have sat through countless long-range planning sessions and been told to have goals with measurable outcomes. I am an economist, and my discipline does put a lot of emphasis on measurable outcomes.  But something was tickling in my brain that we were going about this in the wrong way. Part of it was that some of the best outcomes are not quantifiable.  But something else wasn’t quite right.

Recently I was watching a series of lectures (Great Courses) on fitness and aging in which the instructor was also talking about setting goals.  And measurable ones, at that.  But the difference was that her idea of goals was not outcomes.  Not pounds lost.  Not blood pressure measurement. The goals were changed habits, which are also measurable.  Instead of pounds lost and blood pressure measurement, goals were how many times a week did I exercise? How far did I walk? Did I give my digestive system its much-needed 12 hour fast between dinner and breakfast? How often did my meal include a serving of fruits or vegetables? How many calories or carbs was I taking in and how many was I burning?  The difference was that these goals were things I could control, habits that I could work to develop. They, too, are often measurable. I can’t control outcomes, even though these better habits should make my preferred outcomes more likely.

The instructor’s focus was on fitness—physical, mental, and spiritual health that will lead to good outcomes like inner peace, longevity, less illness, and a slowing of the aging process. Or for concrete thinkers, weight loss and lower blood pressure. I started thinking about how we might apply processes or habits versus outcomes thinking about goals to those long-range planning processes in terms of other aspects of life, particularly organizational life. Typically, organizations will have concrete outcomes they want—more members, more people showing up at events, and more successful fundraising are common ones, all very measurable. But also not something we can control.  

What if the goals were about who we are and what we do, about identity and process rather than outcomes? What if we adapt that great quote from the move Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”  Instead, we could build what our vision says is the right thing to build—the right place, the right time, the right design—by listening to the people who are already here and contributing their time and their presence and their money. And perhaps even back up from that process to remind ourselves why we exist as a community and how building our particular field of dreams serves that reason for being.  If building ( a space, a garden, a program, a project) means that they do indeed come, so there are more members and more money, that’s fine.  But if that project leads to unanticipated outcomes, to better connections to other groups and communities, to a more joyful experience of being together, to a better understanding of what matters, those are good outcomes too. They are just very hard to measure.

So next time you make New Year’s resolutions (and a new year can start any time), or are part of a planning and goal setting process, try to focus on what you can control—the inputs, the processes, the habits or ways of working together.  The outcomes you want may or may not follow, but  you may get some unexpected benefits along the way..

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