Input, Process, Output

Every journey is made up of small steps

My recent blogs have focussed on big picture stuff. While it’s fun to spend time mulling over vision, strategy and our plans for world domination, unfortunately there comes a time when the planning ends and we need to get some actual work done. To this end, lets talk about your IPO. No, not your initial public offering, your Input, Process, Output. A little framework I came up with after drinking from the firehoses of Covey, Drucker, Ferris, Jocko, Clear et al. This is a practical framework that applies to every endeavour, so you should find some real-world value here.

So every task has three elements: the input, the process and the output. Let’s take writing a blog: you use your own experience and research, write some words and edit them, then post the results and you’re done. The same framework can apply to very complex tasks. Take selling a business: you need a seller and a buyer, you negotiate, check and document the details and the output is an exchange of ownership for capital. Selling a business is complicated, but you can use this framework right down through all that complexity, to gain clarity and increase performance.

We tend to focus on outputs (aka goals), largely because that’s what our incentive is often tied to. Write the blogs, people read them, you get feedback and new clients to work with. It’s all about achieving the goal and winning. Once you’re out of school, there are no more participation medals. Winning’s not the only thing, it’s everything. But here’s the rub, focussing on the goal alone, doesn’t help you win.

I think my own experience has been typical. For many years I set goals. I set goals for the week, month, year and of course I came up with some big hairy audacious one’s too. As I set them, I would imagine what hitting these goals would do for me and the dopamine would flow. I’d remind myself of my goals regularly and visualise how much better off I’d be if I achieved them. More dopamine – lovely. My actual results were, at best, patchy. Little or no dopamine – boo. Eventually I decided that the achievement of all these goals was, by definition, set to occur in the future and that this was a problem for me. Happiness was over the cognitive horizon. I struggled to maintain motivation when the inevitable distractions occurred. Time for a re-think.

I found several leading voices talking about forgetting goals and focussing on process. I embraced this mantra and found some insights, but not the whole answer. Now seems like a good time to clarify that I’ve added the final framework at the end of this blog, to help you formulate your own IPO structure and avoid my missteps. Anyway, focussing on the process makes a lot of sense. It also de-personalises your failure, which is great. I don’t know about you, but I like to outsource my failure wherever possible. I guess the time I spent in big corporates paid off after all.

When we talk about process, we’re talking about several different things. It could be a specific series of steps for a task. But it’s also the physical environment in which the effort occurs, the way we approach the task psychologically and so on. For example, my writing process includes planning what I’m going to write, giving myself several writing and editing sessions with time to reflect in between them, removing all other distractions when I’m writing, listening to very specific music and so on. This is all process. It’s giving me the best chance to hit the goal. Requires some self-awareness to get it right but it seems worth it.

Having adjusted goals and spent time on process, I found that results were better but still not where I wanted them to be. Something was missing. I started writing about times when I felt very motivated for no good reason. I realised that if I made a list at the start of the day and ticked off nine out of ten tasks by the end, I felt great. The tenth was the important one but it didn’t matter. After further research I realised the missing ingredient was yet again, dopamine. That little motivation molecule that you get when you set a goal and again when you approach achievement. It’s a useful little chemical when it’s present and conversely its absence can be a problem if, like me, you sometimes struggle to act in your own best interests.

My conclusion was that the smallest unit of achievement was at the input level. What were the resources, efforts or other utility that needed to be introduced as part of the process, to create the output? Back to my writing. I started with a word count as an input goal. A blog each week, average word count, write those words and I’m done. Tricky though, as the words don’t always flow. Upon further investigation and observation, I found that for me, the optimum input to track was overall writing time. That took the performance anxiety away. Just spend 90 minutes writing something. Anything. Track that and see what happens. What it led to was a review of my process and goals. Further refinement.

Finally, after a few weeks of back and forth, I had what I felt was the right goal (output), a strong process and I’d identified the optimum input to track. My IPO was complete. This was a few years ago now and I’ve written mountains of content for both my own and other businesses since. I’ve also applied the IPO framework to all the projects I work on for clients and while there are still improvements to be made (it will never be finished), the outputs and therefore, client satisfaction, has increased significantly.

When applying the IPO framework, it’s important to identify who the goal applies to and the typical timeline. There are lots of different types of goal and the level of detail one can attribute to the goal itself, depends on both our proximity to the outcome and the number of variables at play. A business vision is high level. Three-year strategic objectives are mini visions for departments or functions and with the associated timeline and moving parts, it can still be tricky to be specific. When we get to annual performance goals for a team we can start to sharpen things up and this is often where frameworks like SMART come in handy. Annual goals are often proximate in nature. You have the resources, you have a known process, maybe you’ve done it before. All of this means that you have a higher degree of control over the outcome and so your success is proximate. This is where the IPO framework below works best.

IPO Framework

For each goal…

  • Set your output goal annually: –
    • Use SMART or whatever framework helps clarify the goal.
    • Ensure alignment to the broader mission – yours and your organisations.
  • Document your process: –
    • What’s your current approach?
    • Where’s the friction?
    • What might the optimum approach be?
  • Identify your key input(s): –
    • The primary resource(s) that you will focus on.
  • Set your input goal: –
    • Daily and weekly input goals.
  • Record your input performance and review it weekly: –
    • What worked and what didn’t?
    • Adjust accordingly and re-set input goals.
  • Commit to your process for a quarter: –
    • Record any friction and/or ideas for improvements as you work.
    • Tweak the process once a quarter when you review it.
  • Review your output goals annually.
  • Rinse and repeat.

What you end up with is a kind of detailed chunk down. A high level, yet detailed output goal, an optimum process and clarity on what you need to focus on in the short term. You can see the input, process and output. There’s an approach to each facet of the task, but you only need to deal with today. Just do the work. Hit today’s input goal and soak up that sweet dopamine. Your feedback loop is short and your process review is scheduled and never too far away. You track your way to achievement throughout the year and adjust as you go.

Aside from removing anxiety from your work, the IPO framework also acts as an early warning indicator. You can see where you’ve got to and what’s left to do. So you can adjust and/or communicate accordingly. You don’t fail to hit an annual goal at the end of the year, you fail when you reach a point where you’re behind where you planned to be, and your scheduled efforts for the rest of the year will guarantee you fall short.

Next week, I’ll run you through an annual performance plan and how that can capture all your IPO’s and create a kind of win/win performance agreement that you can either have with yourself, or others inside your business. If I sound certain about publishing next week’s blog, it’s because I know the input, process and output. A good feeling to have.



Set up your inputs Plan the week


It’s always necessary to focus on the activities your firm engages in on a day-to-day basis to create value. The processes you follow, the assets you use to create leverage, logistics and the way you manage risk; there are many critical factors to address in the pursuit of strong financial performance and business growth. Our operational resources will help you identify challenges, remove bottlenecks and manage risk effectively.

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