Sketching outcome pictures at each level of success and failure

For each objective, draw a picture of Success. Then draw an outcome better than Success. Then describe the worst imaginable outcomes. Lastly, fill in the intermediate outcome pictures for that objective. Each picture shows the unit’s success or failure for the year, as you will remember it. Each outcome picture is important, even if unlikely. After capturing the initial pictures, review the full collection for realism.

What to read first: Draw lines of potential year-end outcome pictures

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In an earlier stage you produced a list of unit objectives.

To really understand the objectives, you draw a line of potential year-end outcome pictures on each objective, from best to worst.

These lines of pictures prove your understanding what your unit is trying to achieve. For risk work specifically, you use a line of potential year-end outcomes from your unit to understand the effect of possible events on achievement of each of the objectives. These pictures will be used to classify the impact or consequence of individual risks. In ISO 31000 vocabulary, the pictures are the ‘consequence criteria’. Each ‘risk consequence’ is just one of those outcomes.

The overall likelihood of each future outcome picture will also be the direct basis for confidence in your business plan. Where there isn’t enough confidence, the gaps will be the basis for the issues to be discussed calmly with the boss.

This stage in the risk management is both rewarding and challenging. Ideally the boss will be involved directly. However, this guide assumes that the boss will only look at the final product.

For this stage you use a format that has a picture cell for each of the seven levels of success and failure.

Unit Objective: (Put your objective here)
Success/Failure level Outcome pictures
Far better than expected
Excellence
Success
Qualified Success
Partial Success
Failure
Worst imaginable

You will need one of these for each objective.

It is also possible to use a matrix format, showing all the objectives in one direction, and the seven levels of success in the other. In the real world, I normally use a matrix with the objectives running down and the seven levels running across (example in A3 PDF). A large matrix like that is hard to squeeze into a browser window, so all the illustrations here have a separate vertical table for each objective. If you are building a template, I’ll just mention now that it is sometimes helpful to split the objectives into sub-objectives (up to 5 per objective), so your matrix should be expandable in that way (example in A3 PDF). In the vertical format used within the blog, the sub-objectives are shown as columns within the Outcome Pictures column.

For each objective, draw a picture of Success.

Starting with your first objective, describe a picture of what ‘success’ looks like in a short but clear and persuasive paragraph.

Visualise success as the success outcome looking back from the end of the planning period.

This description will probably relate closely with your wording of the objective itself. The important thing for the Success outcome is that it is a place, not a direction. So, these are the questions you need to consider:

To what extent will the objective have been achieved?

What is the least exciting and most attainable situation will you have to be able to report to claim ‘Success’ on that objective? There may be a few statements linked together with ‘AND’.

For brainstorming, think of completing the following sentence in as many ways as possible:

The year-end unit outcome must at least include …

The concept of ‘at least’ is critical. Don’t be aspirational. Focus on the closest line that you will need to get over.

Write the description of that success picture in the past tense. You don’t need to include the introductory words. Put that description into the ‘success’ cell.

Unit Objective: Maximise the timeliness and accuracy employee payments employees in line with proper management decisions and legal entitlements Brainstorming seed (complete the sentence)
Success/Failure level Outcome pictures
Far better than expected
Excellence
Success There have been no missed paydays due to payroll team failures. There may have been some isolated bank problems that delayed employee access to pay deposits (not due to the payroll team). The year-end unit outcome must at least include …
Qualified Success
Partial Success
Failure
Worst imaginable

Your objective may already be written as a picture of success looking back from the end of the year. If it is, you can just copy it into the Success cell. The objective might not have been written that way. Objectives can be directions or places. Outcomes are always places.

It is good to have multiple pictures of success. They all go into the same cell.

When you’re happy with that description, move on to define Success for each of the other objectives.

Then draw an outcome better than Success.

Pick one of your objectives. Consider the best conceivable outcome on that objective – regardless of realism – and write a descriptive paragraph in the ‘Far better than expected’ cell. As for success, describe how things would appear looking backward from the end of the year. Write the achievements as though they were now behind you.

For brainstorming, think of completing the following sentence in as many ways as possible:

Over the year, the unit achieved a lasting improvement to the organisation’s success by ….

Unit Objective: Minimise total payroll service costs per paid employee (including ICT costs) Brainstorming seed (complete the sentence)
Success/Failure level Outcome pictures
Far better than expected Sustained payroll service performance is publicly identified as a model or benchmark for ‘best practice’, adding to the prestige of the organisation. Over the year, the unit achieved a lasting improvement to the organisation’s success by ….
Excellence
Success Total recurring real payroll service costs per paid employee did not increase over the year.

Payroll service costs are within industry norms.

The year-end unit outcome must at least include …
Qualified Success
Partial Success
Failure
Worst imaginable

Focus particularly on the outcomes that result from external sources and good luck, as well as those at which the unit is working hard.

For some objectives, you might find it difficult to imagine an outcome ‘Far better than success’. If you can think of an outcome that is better than the defined level of Success, but not Far better, you can put that picture into the ‘Excellence’ cell. Or perhaps, for the current objective, going above the basic result is of no actual use to anyone. In that case, you can move on to another objective and try again.

It is good to have multiple outcome pictures in the ‘Far better than expected’ cell.

Once you understand the idea of an outcome better than success, you might choose to defer populating these cells until a later revision and update of the outcome pictures. For some types of work, it is important to think about the possibility of exceeding planned success. If that’s your unit, then draw pictures of the better outcomes. For many other types of work, the organisation will not be very interested, even if you do much better. It may be far more urgent for you to focus on the negatives, so you can defer drawing outcomes better than planned success.

Then describe the worst imaginable outcomes.

The organisation’s worst nightmare may be about you.

Again, working through each of the objectives, write a descriptive paragraph for the ‘Worst imaginable outcome’, in the applicable cell.

For brainstorming, think of completing the following sentence in as many ways as possible:

The organisation regrets having set out on the path leading to what the unit did during the year, which included ….

Focus on the outcomes that would involve some very bad luck. This is risk management, and you need to consider the effects of uncontrollable and uncertain events, not just the predictable outcomes of unit performance.

Don’t hold back, make it genuinely horrific. Think about not just how bad it could be for your unit, but the harm your unit’s function could do to the organisation if it were run by an evil genius instead of someone like you. Or, if through no fault of your own, your unit became a disaster zone. Then go beyond that, and consider ways in which your unit could harm the organisation’s customers, or the whole sector. Ideally, come up with a way in which your work unit could become the organisation’s worst nightmare.

The picture describing that nightmare can be intense and cathartic.

It’s good to talk about these things. Unrealistic but frightening nightmares are actually important.

Multiple nightmares are better than just one. If there are different kinds of outcome that would all count as organisational nightmares, put them all into the cell, linked together with ‘OR’.

As with the Success outcomes and those that are even better, describe the situation as seen looking back from the end of the year.

Unit Objective: Prevent fraud against the organisation by employees or by payroll unit members Brainstorming seed (complete the sentence)
Success/Failure level Outcome pictures
Far better than expected
Excellence
Success
Qualified Success
Partial Success
Failure
Worst imaginable During the year, multiple payroll team members have colluded to commit systematic fraud involving ghost employees.

Payroll unit has recruited real employees into taking inflated pay in exchange for kick-backs.

There was a large-scale misappropriation of disbursements that was achieved with very little effort, and might have been repeated.

The organisation regrets having set out on the path leading to what the unit did (or allowed to happen) during the year, which included …

Ideally these examples will illustrate the meaning of ‘don’t hold back’.

If you really can’t think of anything that bad, that’s fine. Don’t create anything unnatural to fill a space. Just move up to ‘Failure’ and put some pictures into that cell instead. Don’t expect that picture to scare anyone outside your unit, except maybe your boss. You may find that there are some good ‘Worst imaginable’ outcomes for Danger objectives, even if they are hard to find for the Benefit or Capability objectives.

Lastly, fill in the intermediate outcome pictures for that objective.

After describing the worst outcome pictures for each objective, continue to put descriptions into the remaining blank cells. In each case the picture should match:

  • the particular objective (for the row), and
  • the meaning of the column heading (success/failure level) as it would be understood by you and your boss at the end of the year.

This reference table includes relevant brainstorming questions, and filters for answers, for each success and failure level.

Each picture shows the unit’s success or failure for the year, as you will remember it.

Ideally each picture will be fully defined, and describe the outcome itself. It will not represent a transient incident or indicator, but will show the outcome itself.

The picture you draw now will match the memory that you and your organisation share if it becomes a reality. Its validity will not depend on anyone’s point of view. If that outcome becomes a reality, it will have an emotional weight and a story that will last in everyone’s memory. The picture you draw now must capture the same story and the same feeling, and feel different to other pictures.

Numerical measures are far less memorable than pictures and feelings, so think about what might be missing if you are relying on numbers to represent outcomes.

There is much more to come about the qualities of outcome pictures.

Each outcome picture is important, even if unlikely.

Your boss and other stakeholders want you to think about the worst things that can happen to them. They are assured by the way you think carefully about those possibilities, and by the way you take active steps to make sure that they remain comfortably unlikely.

After capturing the initial pictures, review the full collection for realism.

Lastly, have a further look at the Success cells for each of the objectives. For each Success picture, ask if your expectation of that outcome for the coming year is realistic. Consider the implications of the most recent comparable outcomes, and of historical trends. You may feel that one of the other outcomes for that objective is more likely.

If it’s a less attractive outcome that is more realistic, you may want to start early on lowering any expectations you and the boss might have had. There is no point in calling the most likely outcome a ‘risk’. It’s not a risk. It’s a forecast. Gaps between organisation expectations and expert forecasts are not risks to the future outcome. They are management problems to be addressed immediately.

If it seems likely that you will do better than ‘success’, there is no risk-based justification for raising the expectations. Just be prepared to defend your definition of ‘success’ to the boss.

If you have worked diligently through all the review questions, your collection of outcome pictures is now ready to use in risk analysis. You may continue to make incremental improvements.

It is possible to spend more time on the collection to make a smaller and more elegant version, first establishing its basic quality. Taking the extra time may be justified before lot of different people are going to see or use a one-page matrix of outcomes. If it’s just for you, your boss, and some close team members, there is no need to detour to that level now. You can have another look in the next cycle of review and update.


Drill-down articles

Example of outcome pictures with sub-objectives

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Why unrealistic pictures matter

Your customers care deeply about what won’t happen to them.

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Parent articles

Draw lines of potential year-end outcome pictures

To really understand the objectives, draw a line of potential year-end outcome pictures on each objective, from best to worst. First create spaces for the levels of success and failure. Then sketch pictures for each space. Lastly, test and improve the pictures. If you don’t understand the objectives well enough to draw the lines of pictures, you will not be able to evaluate risks.

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Index to the topic Risk in work unit business planning

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