How we’re creating an outcome led culture (and why it matters)

visualisation of how our goals and outcomes ladder up
Creating goals and outcomes to help me run a sub 4-hour marathon

Who doesn’t love a good outcome!? Ask anyone I work with and they’ll tell you it’s one of my 3 favourite topics to discuss down the pub after a pint or two. However I’m very aware that I’ve been preaching to the converted for long enough now, so I’ve taken to writing my thoughts down here instead!

I’ll try and keep it brief (not my strong suit), giving you my view of why an outcome-focused approach is best for your customers, business, and your colleagues, empowering your team to do great things, and how we’re evolving our ways of working over at Sainsbury’s to do just that.

So, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

What does it mean to be outcome-driven?

high level overview of problem discovery process
High-level view of an outcome-oriented way of working

Put simply, being outcome-driven is to place your primary focus on achieving a desired goal, or change in customer behaviour, rather than simply shipping a new feature (much like my example at the top). The desired outcome for the England national football team was to win Euro 2020 (I’m going to use a few football analogies in this so strap yourself in). The opposite to being outcome-driven is being output-driven. For example, the output of England playing in the Euro’s would be turning up, putting 11 players on the pitch and completing 90 minutes of football. No focus on the outcome, goal, reason for taking part, and no way to measure their success. When you bring this into a business context, the gap widens. You move to a world where teams are empowered to drive an outcome such as ‘increase customer retention’, vs an output of ‘deliver feature X’. The outcome is the change in behaviour you hope the feature will drive.

examples of outcomes that are too narrow or too broad
Outcomes that are too short-sighted, vs too broad

A famous example of giving a team a clear outcome is when J.F.K said that “we want to put a man on the moon”. The outcome is clear, no ambiguity, no misinterpretation. Landing a man on the moon is the desired goal. He could have said “we want to build a really powerful rocket” instead, describing the output rather than the outcome, however, he chose to give his team an ambitious mission to go after. And this is where the power of outcome-driven teams lies…

Why being outcome-driven is important for us

don’t always follow the captain
don’t always follow the captain
What we want to avoid. Credit David Marquet.

“If you want people to think, don’t give them instructions, give them intent” is a phrase I think summarises the way leadership teams need to empower the people they lead (you can watch a great video on this here). If you give a team of 100 an outcome to achieve, you empower every one of them to think of ways to achieve that outcome, rather than simply telling them to build the idea in one person's head (much like the example above of everyone doing as the Captain says). You create a group of leaders, encouraging them to actually THINK about what they’re doing and why, using their expertise to help identify challenges, obstacles and opportunities to achieve the outcome, things you may have not seen yourself. As Steve Jobs put it, “I don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do”.

As a UK-based food retailer, the market is incredibly competitive, with market share being gobbled up by startups, food on-demand services, restaurants… not to mention the ‘big 4'. Being outcome-focused is the only way we’re going to thrive, focusing on what’s really important for our customers and the business, and utilising all of the amazingly talented colleagues working in our stores, depots, and store support centres to do what they do best. Shared outcomes have the power to do what JFK did, aligning everyone around a common goal, something aspirational, motivational… something we can all help achieve and contribute to. It’s an investment in people.

example of how initiatives ladder into outcomes into goals
example of how initiatives ladder into outcomes into goals
Everyone understands how they’re contributing to our vision

Not only does it give everyone a common purpose, but it also allows us to prioritise the work we do. There are roughly 4359782356928 things on our roadmaps and backlogs, any one of them solving a pain point for our customers or colleagues, but how do we determine the RIGHT thing to work on to deliver maximum impact? You guessed it. Outcomes allow us to effectively prioritise what we build based on the things we believe have the best chance of helping us achieve our outcome and measures of success. Put simply, without a clear view of what ‘success’ looks like, you have no way of knowing if the thing you’ve just built actually helped in any meaningful way, other than it was ‘released’. Success moves from being ‘how much did we release/build this quarter’ to ‘how much have we increased customer retention this quarter’? The things you’ve built take a back seat, and the measure of success is what you really care about.

6 ways we’re iterating our ways of working

matrix showing that the more attempts you take the more likely you are to succeed
matrix showing that the more attempts you take the more likely you are to succeed
If you don’t try you won’t succeed. Credit Michelle Rial.

So far, so good. Outcomes seem the obvious way to work, so it must be simple to implement, right? Well, with anything, there are a number of things that make outcome driven working harder than it sounds, things we’ve discovered over the past few years, some we’ve solved, and some that require a bit more patience!

  1. Cultural change. Not all parts of the business can be fully outcome driven. Some areas are working on big, complex ‘outputs’ that will unlock many possibilities for other teams. Some areas are working on legislative change, and others just don’t have the tooling available. However the big piece here is really a change in culture, and any cultural change takes time, especially in an organisation as big as Sainsbury’s. We’ve been identifying areas of the business where we can drive outcome-driven work quickly, demonstrating the value it delivers, and then using this as an example of what ‘good’ looks like across the organisation (almost like the outcome of outcome working, if that isn’t too meta). It’s important to break things down into small chunks and bring people on the journey with you. It’s not going to all magically change overnight.
  2. Being brave and trusting each other. Similar to my point about cultural change, but much more than that, is empowering teams to take risks, be brave, and trusting each other that if things don’t work first time then that’s ok. We need to remove any ‘stage gates’ between ideation and delivery, allowing teams to feel like they have autonomy to do what they think is best, after all, they’re the ones who are often closest to our customers! Everything we do provides us with insight, and we take those learnings into our next experiment. We need a culture that allows this and rewards the team for ‘learning something’ over all else. You know… fail fast and iterate. Or as Michael Jordan put it, “you miss 100% of the shots you never take”. We should celebrate teams who are taking lots of shots!
  3. Experimentation. To be brave and take risks, you need a very capable experimentation set-up, from the tooling available to the way we integrate testing into our process. We’re working hard to up-skill the entire team on how to set up experiments that return trustworthy, actionable insight, allowing us to AB test at scale and ultimately remove risk from any of the ideas the team have. If we can spin up experiments in a low-risk way, we can afford to test more hypotheses more quickly, which is only going to allow us to find the right answers through trial and error rather than putting all of our eggs in one basket.
  4. Having the right data and KPIs. To run great experiments, you need data that is 1) available, and 2) relevant to your outcome. I’ve seen hypotheses created and experiments planned where the required data wasn’t readily available to the team. And I’ve seen experiments based on data that wasn’t relevant to the outcome the team are trying to drive. In the same way that a football team may change their tactics to see if they’re more likely to win an upcoming game. The data they’d use to determine if that experiment was successful may be something like ‘the total number of shots on target’. That’s a good measure of whether you played more attacking football. If you were to use, say, ‘the amount of possession you had in the game’, well that’s less relevant, and isn’t an indicator of the likelihood you’ll win the game. You need the right data and KPIs to support your outcomes, resulting in experiments that are focused on driving the right behaviour change.
  5. Regular reporting and prioritisation. Once you have all of this in place, the most important thing is to make sure you’re regularly coming together as a wider team to analyse how things are going, the learnings from your experiments, what’s worked, what hasn’t, and if you’ve managed to ‘move the needle’. Only through doing this will you know if the outcome is achievable, and if you should cut losses and focus on the next most important thing. After all we can’t work on every outcome at the same time. We’ll need to work on those that matter most, and once we’ve achieved them, move onto the next biggest priority. Which leads me to my final point in this section… setting clear targets. The only way you’ll know if you’ve achieved your outcome is to know what success looks like. “Winning Euro 2020” is a target. “Increasing retention by 10%” is a target. It gives the team focus and helps them understand if they need to consider big, bold changes, or smaller iterative ones. Only then can we effectively resource and prioritise the work we do.
  6. Providing visibility. For all of this to work, everyone in the organisation needs visibility of your vision and strategy. It needs to be simple enough for everyone to understand and remember. Everyone should be savvy to your P&L, how the business is performing, what’s going on in the market and how we’re responding. A united front without hierarchy getting in the way.

What we’ve done so far

I’ve spoken about the many aspects of becoming a high-performing, outcome-focused team. There’s plenty that we‘re still working on, but also things that we’ve learnt over the last couple of years. Here’s some of what we’ve implemented so far;

  • We’ve co-created our digital outcomes across the Product, e-Commerce, and XD teams to make sure we’re all aligned around a common set of goals that support our company vision. Goals and outcomes that are metric-based, measurable, simple, and memorable. We used a common syntax to keep the structure consistent across teams.
example outcome syntax
example outcome syntax
  • We’ve created shared roadmaps to provide visibility of the experiments each team will be running and which outcomes they ladder into.
example roadmap
example roadmap
  • We’ve built a data pipeline to help provide relevant data to the teams, and clarity on where data is missing.
  • We’ve integrated AB testing tools across our Grocery and Argos sites to empower teams to test and learn more quickly.
  • We’ve built an outcome dashboard giving a high-level view of how we’re performing against each of our prioritised outcomes.
example outcome report
example outcome report
  • We’ve built an ‘Outcome playbook’ to give all of the teams we work with common tools and a shared approach to this new way of working, from roadmap templates, data dashboards, training materials and more.
example outcome and kpi documentation
example outcome and kpi documentation
  • We have shared ceremonies where the cross-discipline team comes together to share what they’ve learnt, with everything laddering into our goals and outcomes.
  • We continue to build strong relationships across teams to encourage true collaboration and shared problem solving.

What we’ve learned so far

Finally, I thought it would be useful to wrap up with a few of the key learnings I’ve taken from the last 12 months. What we’re doing is very much a work in progress and will never be finished. We’ll continually learn about better ways of working and how we continue to iterate to become more agile, more lean, and more impactful.

  1. It’s hard! There’s a lot to learn, especially in a team as big as ours! Keeping on top of that and making sure we come together at the right times to review the process, create the right tools, and speak to the right people requires time and effort.
  2. There’s a lot of change. Embrace it! Good things are coming and we’ll need to be resilient.
  3. It can feel scary, but anything new does! We have to take risks and be brave. The world feels more ambiguous when you’re given an outcome to drive rather than a feature to deliver. You now have much broader questions to answer and this requires a different skillset, weighted more into research and discovery.
  4. We all own it. No one else is going to make this change for us. And no single person can be responsible for it. It’s the responsibility of everyone at Sainsbury’s to be outcome-driven, and that’s the only way it’ll ever work, from the stores and depots to our store support centre.
  5. We’re going to get things wrong. Whether that’s the way we approach work, with ideas coming from the bottom up, or the experiments themselves. Things will go wrong. But we have to trust each other, learn from our failures and move on. We need to lead by example and celebrate our failures.
  6. Collaboration is key (and difficult). I’m not talking about communication (a weekly catch-up) or cooperation (working on the same thing at the same time), but true collaboration, solving the same problem and bouncing ideas off of each other. Building relationships with your stakeholders and ensuring you’re all agreed on your mission, the outcome and target, is fundamental in making this approach work. Kicking off projects and agreeing those 3 things is key to our success, no matter your seniority.
  7. When we get it right, it’s awesome! There are plenty of examples of outcome driven teams at Sainsbury’s, and when you see it all come together it’s amazing. Teams energised around outcomes they agree on, everyone chipping in with ideas to test, running experiments every week and seeing us move closer and closer to our target measure of success… it’s just like winning the Euros (I’d imagine)!

Apologies for the rant. I could do with a pint! ✌️

rocket taking off


Ben Brewer - Principal Experience Design Manager @ Sainsbury’s CXD.

Principal Experience Design Manager at Sainsbury’s | Ex-Deliveroo. Runner 🏃‍♂️ mountain biker 🚵‍♂️ Spurs fan 💪 Disney aficionado and kitten dad 🐱