Process based goals vs. outcome based goals and who really cares / by Nathan Dugat

“If you don’t know where you are headed, you’ll probably end up someplace else.” 
-Douglas J. Eder, Ph.D 


At night I’m saving the world as a musical superhero. By day, I am a mild-mannered employee at a university working in their assessment office. What is that, you ask? I usually distill it down to ‘I.T.-ish work and clerical stuff.’

However, if I were to be more specific, I would say that my job is to help people to do their job better, using a few common sense approaches and the data that they have on hand. One of the ways that I do that is by helping offices develop what we call an assessment plan; in short, a bulleted list of a few things that they wish to improve, whereby they measure their efforts to see how well (or poorly) they accomplished their goals to improve.

Now, before you doze off, let me appeal to you and say that I think that this same idea might be useful to you as well, no matter the business or hobby that occupies your time. It’s likely that you already do this in one form or anther; even so, it’s useful to sometimes formalize and write down the steps to help you to stick to the goals you may have in mind.

Speaking of goals, there is one thing that I learned recently that I didn’t think about before: there are really two types of goals – outcome-based goals and process-based goals.  What are they and when should you use one over the other?

Process-based goals are those where you measure what you are doing to accomplish something rather than actually measuring the thing to be accomplished.  For example, if I want to become a better piano player, I could measure the frequency and duration of my piano practicing to start (‘play X minutes of piano per day’). I’m not measuring anything that tells me whether I get better directly, just that I am sticking to practicing longer, for instance.  There’s good reason to believe that this will make me better, but it’s not measuring ‘better.’

After I get those good habits of practicing down, I could switch to an outcome-based goal, e.g., ‘improve piano playing speed by X%.’ To accomplish this, I may need to practice even longer than before, but I’m not measuring that – I’m only looking at the outcome of my efforts.

Developing your goals is a good starting point for creating your own assessment plan to be the most butt-kicking… or green thumbing… or riff rocking… well, you get the point.

After you establish your goals, the rest of it is pretty straightforward:

  • Goal – Either a process or an outcome
  • Assessment Method/Success Criterion – How will you measure, and how will you know whether or not you were successful?
  • Results – The findings of your measurements 
  • Use of Results – Now that you learned something from measuring, what will you do with this data to actually make you better?

A few important points: 

  1.  As I mentioned before, writing down your goals helps you to stick to them.
  2. While it would be nice to continually improve everything, it’s more reasonable to only try to improve a couple of things during each period in which you assess what you’re doing.  After all, if you try or change too much at once, you might not be able to determine which change actually produced the intended result!
  3. To some degree, nearly anything can be quantified - try to be open to what those results are actually telling you (stick to the facts, Ma’am!) and make changes based on those results.
  4. Use process-based goals on new endeavors and see what results may come from them.  These can help you to form new habits.  Switch to outcome-based goals once you have established a baseline outcome to see if you can achieve even better results.

Now it's time to get cracking on those goals. Happy assessing!