Outcomes theory knowledge base (Org)

This knowledge base provides a systematic treatment of outcomes theory as applied to managing the performance of organizations, programs, policies and collaborations [Org]. This site is for those interested in theory. If you want a practical implementation of this theory that can be used to design and implement working outcomes, evaluation, monitoring and performance management systems, you should use Systematic Outcomes Analysis based on the Outcomes Is It Working Analysis (OIIWA) approach from www.oiiwa.org site. If using any ideas or material from this knowledge base please cite this reference as: Duignan, P. (2005-insert current year) Insert name of page in Outcomes Theory Knowledge Base (Organizational) [Available at www.outcomestheory.org]. Any comments on any aspect of this knowledge base appreciated, please send to paul (at) parkerduignan.com.

Overview of outcomes theory (Org) [P1-3]

Outcomes theory provides a comprehensive set of definitions, principles, examples and descriptions for analysing all types of outcomes and performance management systems in any domain and at any level - individual, organizational, community, regional, national and global.  Outcomes theory does not focus on the actual content of the outcomes systems with which it deals, this is the responsibility of content and discipline experts in particular domains.  Outcomes theory's contribution is to attempt to increase generic understanding about how such systems function, can be analyzed and optimized.  Two key concepts in outcomes theory are outcomes hierarchies and outcomes systems

Outcomes hierarchies are hierarchies which make claims about what are the cascading sets of causes and effects in the real world in the domain in which someone is trying to intervene in such causal systems.  Such hierarchies, whether explicit or implicit, in narrative, tables, databases or visualizations, underlie all outcomes and performance management systems. Such outcomes hierarchies formated in different ways go under various names such as: intervention logics, program theories, program theories of action, results chains, and strategy maps.  There is an increasing trend towards requiring that such outcomes hierarchies be made explicit rather than allowing them to remain implicit.

Outcomes systems are specific systems which attempt to provide monitoring or facilitating frameworks within which interventions occur and which are directed at maximizing the achievement of higher-level outcomes as specified in one or more explicit or implicit outcomes hierarchies.  Such outcomes systems go under various names such as: performance management systems, results based systems, evidence based practice, cost effectiveness systems, value for money and economic value added systems.  Such systems are increasingly being established in many sectors.   

Outcomes theory is useful for anyone attempting to clarify how outcomes are caused; attempting to change outcomes; attempting to assess whether outcomes have been achieved; and attempting to encourage effective interventions by others to influence the outcomes they are seeking to change.  Given its general applicability, outcomes theory may have some potential relevance to most people.  Outcomes theory can help answer diverse questions such as: what we should hold government organizations accountable for; under what circumstances we can "contract for outcomes"; when should we budget on the basis of outcome achievement; whether it is rational to compare the established efficacy of individual social work interventions with community intervention programs; and why military field commanders often forgo attribution of success to individual troops in order to achieve tactical objectives [see Uses for outcomes theory for more detail].

An outcomes hierarchy for outcomes theory

An outcomes hierarchy is set out below which details the outcomes it is hoped the development of outcomes theory will contribute to. 

Outcomes theory outcomes hierarchy

Outcomes theory relationship to other disciplines and theories

Outcomes theory traverses territory which is also described by other theories, for instance in economics, accounting, psychology, evaluation and public policy.  As with any theory, outcomes theory should be evaluated on its ability to shed new light on phenomena even if some aspects of such phenomena are already theorized within other disciplines [see Relationship to other theories for more detail].  Through providing insights into explicit individual, organizational, community and societal outcomes systems, outcomes theory can provide immediate guidance for building better outcomes systems.   This is important because at the current time such systems are seriously undertheorized [1]. 

Outcomes theory definitions

An outcomes hierarchy is formally defined as - a cascading set of causes in the real world.  These can be viewed as elements [2] (often called outcomes) where any one element can be caused by one (or more) other element(s) and can, in turn, itself cause other elements to occur or not occur.   [see Outcomes hierarchy definitions].

An outcomes system is formally defined as - a system designed to assist control organizations [3] (controllers) and intervention organizations (influencers) to bring about changes in the level of measures of elements (outcomes) within an outcomes hierarchy.  This occurs through control organizations providing formal and informal positive and/or negative sanctions (consistent with system sanction rules) in response to information about changes in outcomes hierarchy element measurements (indicators) or information on the validity of links between outcome hierarchy elements.  Intervention organizations can also use such element measurements directly for improvement independent of controllers positive or negative sanctions.  Intervention organizations may receive additional positive or negative sanctions from other relevant stakeholders (relevant entities) as a result of such stakeholders receiving formal or informal information about outcomes hierarchy element measurements or about the validity of links between outcome hierarchy elements.

Key concepts underlying outcomes theory

Outcomes theory identifies a set of key characteristics on which outcomes can differ. These are as follows:

Influencibility - An outcome is influencible by an intervention to the extent that the intervention can theoretically change the outcome (independent of whether the outcome can be measured or changes in it attributed to the intervention).  An outcome may be influencible by one or more interventions.

Controllability - An outcome is controlled by an intervention to the extent that the intervention is in normal conditions the only major factor influencing the outcome.

Measurability - An outcome is measurable to the extent that it can be measured at at least one point in time and further that changes in it can be tracked over time.

Attributability - An outcome is attributable to the extent that it can be measured and changes in it can be separately attributed (after the change has taken place) to one or more interventions.

Accountability - An outcome is accountable to the extent that an intervention organization is positively or negatively sanctioned for change, or lack of change in the outcome.

Reversibility - A change in an outcome caused by a lower level outcome or outcomes may vary in the extent to which it is reversible. 

Response consistency (vs tipping-point) - An outcome has response consistency to the extent that it varies in a steady and consistent manner in response to changes in the lower level outcomes which cause it.  It has instability to the extent that there are tipping points at which it suddenly changes more rapidly in response to changes in the lower level outcomes which influence it.  For instance, through amplifying feedback loops. This is also known as non-linearity.

Lag - An outcome is lagged to the the extent that there is a significant time delay between changes in the lower level outcomes which influence it and the time when it actually changes in response to them.


[1] It is interesting to contrast the state of development of outcomes theory as applied to organizations with that of a related area of organizational theory - accountancy.  In contrast to the outcomes area, accountancy has well developed theory, trained practitioners and detailed sets of conventions for translating its theory into practical systems.  

[2] Pure outcomes theory uses a set of formal terms (such as causal element, controller, influencer) in order to avoid the problems associated with the lack of absolute clarity around terms used in different outcomes systems.   In the treatment of outcomes theory as it applies to organizations set out here, the formal vocabulary of outcomes theory is relaxed by using terms such as control organization and intervention organization in order to aid reader accessibility.  In order to further increase accessibility, this knowledge base uses the term outcomes (rather than the outcomes theory technical term causal entity) to mean any "cause in the real world."  This is done in full awareness that a rigid distinction is sometimes made in outcomes systems thinking between outcomes and outputs.  Outcomes theory reveals when it does, and when it does not, make sense to distinguish between entities such as outputs and outcomes on the basis of the formal logical characteristics of the entities known as outcomes and outputs.  

[3] Where the term organization is used in this treatment of outcomes theory it should be read as applying to organizations, individuals, policies, program, projects and other types of interventions which attempt to influence outcomes.


Copyright Dr Paul Duignan 2005 www.outcomestheory.org