Input goals and output goals

The other week someone introduced me to the idea of “input goals” and “output goals”, by Oz Chen. Oz writes about “personal development and content strategy”, so his purpose in writing is different to mine, but goals are goals, and the introduction I was given was of the form “my company sets goals of the kind Oz Chen calls input goals,” so there is some overlap.

For Oz, input goals are about the work you put in; output goals are what you get out. He has some examples of output goals (on the left) transformed into input goals:

  • “Get six pack abs.” > “Work out 3 times a week.”
  • “Become a millionaire.” > “Spend 4 hours a day on my side hustle.”
  • “Run a marathon.” > “Run for half an hour daily.”

Another way of expressing these is that output goals are about results, input goals are about activity.

Oz’s post advocates strongly for input goals (although he has some positive words about output goals, too). They are easier to measure, easier to achieve (because they’re smaller) and are more focused.

But I would advocate the opposite. Knowing what results you want to achieve is critical—asking “why?” influences how you achieve the goal.

If you want to get six pack abs, then just working out three times a week may not achieve it. Choosing which workouts you do might be critical. And there might be other things you need to do, too, such as changing your diet. Spending 4 hours a day on your side hustle might help you become a millionaire… but how have others done it? And which of those approaches seems right for you?

Perhaps if we’re just talking about personal development it’s not so bad. Working out three times a week will do you good. Running for half an hour a day brings health benefits. Working that side hustle will teach you things. If we’re not so precious about the outcomes we’ll still see some benefits.

But organisations need to be more rigorous. I once worked with a team tasked with migrating six landmark products onto a new platform by a particular date. The purpose was to reduce operating costs. The product manager said to me, “if I didn’t know the reason for the migration was to reduce operating costs I would have organised the work completely differently.” If she didn’t know the output goal she might not have achieved it, even though—on paper—she would have achieved the input goals.

We do have to make small, tangible steps. But always being clear about the intended outcome is at least as important.

Photo by Jacobo García López de Araujo