Process vs outcome


I often think how the focus of our lives have shifted from what it was earlier in time to what it is now in the contemporary times.

What is the focus of our life today? Is our focus on the process of living, or on the outcomes that we chase? For most of us it is the latter. We have been conditioned to focus on outcomes for everything we do in our life – school, work and play. At work, we all are under increasing pressure to continuously improve our performance every day. In schools, students are constantly chasing higher grades. In sports, we are always striving to create new world records.

Such an outcome oriented focus represents a fundamental shift in the way we think, speak and act. We are obsessed with the outcomes more than ever and this transition from a process orientation to an outcome orientation is driving us to constantly measure and improve, so as to create new milestones – by beating our own selves.

However, it is interesting to note that outcome is the last element in a chain of long, non-linear processes. There are three important precursors of outcome in this chain. They are our thoughts, speech and actions. Outcome is the end product of these three elements, and depending on how we configure the three elements in our lives, the outcome changes.

The outcome orientation focuses on the future. Today, the ends matter more and the means to get there have become of secondary importance. In essence, the present is subsumed by the future. But since the future was, is, and always will be uncertain; we are constantly chasing unknown at the expense of the known. Focusing on outcomes consumes our precious present and as the uncertain future unfolds into the present, we are constantly forced to adjust and re-adjust – resulting in friction between the two.

An outcome orientation approach claims flexibility of processes. If a process does not work, we can discard it and adopt a new process to achieve the desired outcome. While being flexible is a fine quality, outcome focus affects our commitment to the process. We give up on our own thoughts, words and actions far too quickly in our quest for a prefabricated future rather than exploiting the full potential that our present has to offer.

The process oriented approach focuses on the present. The important components of this approach is in the present state and is defined by our intent, communication of the intent and work being done to realize that intent. The process approach tries to link our existential elements in the present. In essence, it is about establishing a harmony of our present being so as to maximize the potential gains in the present moment, as it happens.

So in the context of our shift towards the contemporary outcome oriented focus, it would be interesting to see how we have approached life in earlier times. Was our life-approach always like this? Let’s trace it back a little to see.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Mahatma Gandhi

To paraphrase, it advises us to be congruent, authentic and our true self. This quote has caught the imaginations of many, but a look further back and we see that there are numerous instances of such aphorisms in ancient cultural texts.

‘Manasa, Vacha and Karmana’ is a Sanskrit saying, which literally translates to mind, speech and actions. The saying suggests that we must strive to attain a state where our thoughts, speech and the actions coincide. It emphasizes a state of consistency in an individual.

Similarly we have the ‘three vajras’ in Buddhism – body, speech and mind. The ‘three vajras’ have multiple representations in different cultures and are most commonly referred to as the ‘three jewels’. The ‘three jewels’ imply purity of action, speech and thought.

In Japanese Buddhism the ‘three vajras’ are known as ‘three mysteries’ implying the same connotations. In the same vein we also have the ‘three wise monkeys’ in Japanese culture – Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru. The ‘three monkeys’ embody the principle to ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’.

These cultural texts along with volumes of other literature elucidates that our approach to life was not always outcome oriented. It rather stressed on the importance of a harmonious present state, where our thoughts, speech and actions are in perfect synchrony, unadulterated by the wishful desired outcomes. It advised us to not focus on the uncertain future, but rather pivot our lives on the existential present. Living in the present and appreciating life in the very moment was the prescription for attaining consciousness.

So how have we transformed from such a present focused (process) approach to a future oriented (outcome) approach. Although literature suggests that the outcome oriented approach has been in existence for more than a century, it is only in the past few decades that it penetrated our lives to a greater extent – Stanford social innovation review.

One of the important reasons for this transformation is cultural revolution in our work lives. According to Jannis Kallinikos (Professor of Information Systems at London School of Economics and Political Science), extreme concerns with external contingencies and adaptability in the long run has hollowed out our lives from inside.

We, the hollowed out individuals, are driven solely by contingent demands and our commitment to desired goals, which are often set by others for us – either our superiors or the society (peer pressure?). Jannis Kallinikos

Essentially we have become prisoners of our commitment to outcomes. This imbalance between our social being and the professional being results in the friction in our lives – leading to discontentment and depression, which is far too common these days. To minimize this friction, the new cultural revolutionaries seek to completely engulf our social being by the outcome oriented professional beings – a completely corrosive process.

Although this self-imprisonment sounds alarming, it has been a slow and insidious process. We hardly are aware of how the transformation has occurred and how it has taken our lives in its firm grasp.

So how do we wriggle out of this difficult situation? Do we just quit being a modern urban dweller trashing all our aspirations, or do we just succumb to the corrosive cultural revolution that is invading our life? Although the former option sounds lucrative, can it feed us?

Like everything in life, we need to learn to balance these two dynamics. If we think only of the result (unknown future state) then we miss the actual process of living. However, thinking of the result allows us to use our time more efficiently and helps us to focus more on the processes (present state) as well.

Achieving a balance will allow us to enjoy going through the process and at the same time also enjoy the outcomes. And achieving that perfect balance between the two, the present process and the uncertain future outcomes is a challenge.

If we enjoy the process and live in the present, we might feel concerned about achieving the results. On the contrary, if we are focused on the results, we risk the danger of missing the present moment that life has to offer us.

However, the essence of process orientation is that doing the right things in the correct way leads to success; and to achieve best results our process must be constantly improved. So we must be focused on results, but monitor and constantly improve our process. Achieving the balance is the key.

However, just finding the key is not enough. It is more important to understand how to use the key. And it is an altogether different topic commanding an elaborate essay in itself. But just to sum it up, Dale Carnegie, in his book, ‘How to stop worry and start living’, has put forward the big idea in a very succinct way:

“Shut the iron doors on the past and the future. Live in day-tight compartments.”