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InfoQ Homepage Articles Outcome Mapping - How to Collaborate with Clarity

Outcome Mapping - How to Collaborate with Clarity

Key Takeaways

  • Begin again, with the end in mind. Lack of clarity is the biggest risk to improvement efforts.
  • Move perspectives from individual minds, to a collaborative, visual workspace.
  • Bridge the gaps between tech and business, roles and teams by giving everyone a clear, visual asset.
  • Break down your target, consider obstacles, simplify, and clarify.
  • The mapping is more important than the map. Bringing individuals together with a framework for creative discussion is powerful.

"To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction."

— Stephen R. Covey

Even with all of our experience and knowledge in adopting new techniques and technologies, 70% of transformation efforts continue to fail.

They primarily fail as a result of lacking clarity and process for improvement.

Few techniques and strategies exist to address the clarity gap, or provide actionable guidance to make improvements.

"Most digital transformations fail for two reasons:

1) their transformation strategy lacks clarity and

2) they don't choose the right processes for disciplined execution. In short, they fail at the where of digital transformation and the how."

- McKinsey 2020

To truly improve, you need to deliver change to people, process, and tools. To make change effective, you need to identify where that change is needed, and what needs to change. Take it from Google, this is complex territory. Shown here is Google’s map of factors affecting continuous delivery. What does the map of your current state look like? What is the best next step to make progress? You need your teams aligned to a clear goal, an understanding of the landscape, and a clear plan of action.

Lean principles advise us to first ‘Define Value’ before embarking on improvement efforts. It’s easy to assume this has already been done, right? After all, we’re in business, aren’t we? Yet value exists at many levels, in many contexts, as a moving target. Value for the next quarter is a different focus than value over the next decade. Even if you understand it clearly, is your entire team on the same page? It pays to step back from our assumptions and break down what our most valuable target should be at this moment. Defining value for an entire business (or even a given product or service) is beyond the scope of this effort. There are a lot of tools available for that elsewhere. In Flow Engineering we’re concerned with improving the flow of value in the next 3-6 months, within a specific value stream. A few common desired outcomes we see in Flow Engineering efforts are:

  • Deliver software 3 times more often
  • Deploy changes to test environments 10x faster
  • Recover from production issues 5x faster
  • Reduce production defects by half
  • Reduce variability by half

In that context, my favourite method for defining value is the Outcome Map. The outcome, and value we define, serve as a compass to align our efforts towards a north star target.

"The highest performing companies build alignment around three questions: Why are we doing this? What should we do? How do we implement the transformation?"

- Boston Consulting Group, 2020

How Useful is Your Compass?

A compass is a valuable tool to set direction, but its true value shines when it’s combined with context. Knowing where to head doesn’t save us from reaching an impasse. We typically have lots of compasses pointing us in different directions.

The Outcome Map allows team members to dig into a desired outcome and begin charting the path to achieving it with open eyes. Doing so will help the team define a clear roadmap towards better. I recommend stepping back and (re)defining value by mapping, together with your entire team. Outcome mapping is structured practice that brings a team or group of colleagues together to converge on what is most important, and how to move towards it together. Begin with the end in mind. See and share factors between you and your goal.

Your ‘Whys’ are the key to defining value.

Maps provide more than context and visualization. The act of mapping creates understanding and alignment. Does everyone clearly understand the objective? Is it clear what priority should be followed in the case of disruption or distraction? When you want a specific outcome, it makes all the difference in the world to be clear on the why.

A compass without a map can easily lead you to a dead end.

Once you know where you’re headed, you’ll want to know what’s in your way! By mapping, you go from not knowing where to start, past knowing what you want, all the way to having a clear path to get there.

The process of creating an outcome map is composed of five main stages:

  1. Team assembly
  2. Brainstorming pains and goals
  3. Target outcome selection
  4. Target outcome analysis
  5. Experimental action definition

If you like terrible acronyms, you’re welcome to ABSAD: A(ssembly), B(rainstorming), S(election), A(nalysis), and D(efinition). That’s too much to cover in detail here, but here’s a quick summary of each:

  1. Team assembly - gather key stakeholders to participate in mapping
  2. Brainstorming pains and goals - collect pains and goals from participants
  3. Target outcome selection - select the highest value outcome
  4. Target outcome analysis - break down the outcome by filling in the map
  5. Experimental action definition - define experimental next steps to proceed

Example Outcome Map

How do you build it?

The team comes together to define their desired outcome, and then consider what could impact their ability to deliver it. Defining the Why(s) sets the foundation supporting the effort. Obstacles are the key challenges standing in the teams’ way. Investigation lists your immediate actions to address obstacles. Measures are TBD when you define the map at first, because until you understand more about your current state and constraints, defining effective measures is unlikely. What should we measure if we don’t know what our biggest challenge is? If we don’t know what our value stream looks like?

Well, let’s say we have a hunch, or a good idea of what will show progress. To get started, you can use high-level measurements like lead time, rolled percentage complete and accurate, net promoter score, etc, but these may not be specific enough to show meaningful data in the short term. You can always loop back to replace them with more specific measurements, once you understand more about your current state through further mapping or measurement.  

Optionally, you can dig even deeper to add Indicators, Impacts, Roles, and Methods. Indicators list how you will know you’re progressing. Impacts list factors that will affect your progress. Roles list the contributors to the process. Methods, like Measures, wait until you know more. Deciding what to do and how to measure it can’t be done effectively until you truly know where your risks and opportunities are.

How do you use it?

The Outcome Map is an excellent way to create energetic communication, clarity, and alignment from the start (or re-start) of any initiative. It also reminds you to stay on track as you progress, and how to know when we’re drifting from the path. By adding measurements and methods, you can describe where you want to go and how you plan to get there.

In both a project and product approach, clarity of outcomes is critical, but what’s often forgotten are the factors affecting the odds of achieving the outcome. Outcome mapping allows us to explore, anticipate, and design mitigation approaches to factors impacting our desired outcome. For this reason, it’s also commonly referred to as impact mapping. In practice, you can map many factors involved in a given outcome, but a few critical ingredients should always be present. Defining measures (or indicators) of progress (summarized as ‘Measures’ in the map itself) allows you to measure and celebrate progress without waiting until the distant deadline of your primary outcome to find out if you’ve succeeded or failed. Measures in this context can include metrics, measurements, deliverables, and/or milestones. Defining measures allows you to monitor whether you’re making progress and meeting your obligations.

Lastly, the key to understanding the outcome map is that you create it from left to right, starting with the outcome and  working towards defined measures of progress. Each item contributes to the outcome. When working towards the outcome, you consider the factors in reverse, aiming to impact your indicators of progress, and mitigating obstacles to reach your outcome. The ‘order of definition’ - the order by which we build the map, runs left to right, the ‘order of contribution’ - the order by which we understand the contributing factors - runs right to left.

Outcome ⇨ Whys ⇨ Obstacles ⇨ Investigations ⇨ Measures ⇨ Methods

Outcome Mapping In A Nutshell

Goal: Begin with the end in mind - define and clarify outcomes

Pre-Map Questions

  • What are our pains and goals?
  • What do we aim to achieve?
  • What is in our way right now?

Mapping Questions

  • Which outcome is most valuable?
  • Why is it important?
  • What obstacles stand in our way?
  • What can we try to learn more?
  • How can we measure progress?


  • Surface pains and goals
  • Clarify a target outcome
  • Share perspectives and information about outcome contributions
  • Identify contributions to a key outcome
  • Produce an artifact for easy reference and sharing

Case: Ambitious Software Delivery Team

It’s very common to have little autonomy over defining your own target outcome, but that doesn’t mean you can’t redefine it and start off at an advantage.

Let's look at the example of a team aiming to boost their performance:

Set the Compass

Goals, pains, questions, ideas

First of all, they begin by taking the temperature of the team, and warming up with a brainstorming session on Goals, Pains, Questions, and Ideas. We drop these on to a board and vote on them to see what bubbles up. This is a chance for the team to surface concerns and ideas, clearing the air early and sharing context. In their session, faster delivery leads the goals, followed by improving quality.

Items voted on

The team can further clarify and distill the brainstorming results by grouping items as described below. Because it’s better to focus on one goal at a time, the team chooses to focus on faster delivery but keeping quality in mind, committing to maintain quality while going faster.

Grouped items for clarity

Starting from: "We have to deliver software twice as fast without sacrificing quality", they first map that desired outcome to reveal and define top contributing factors.

Map the Path

They clarify the goal and contributing factors (Outcome Map), to explore the challenge/opportunity and align those involved. "We want to deliver changes every week" is a fine outcome to aim for, but your odds of success and ability to make key decisions depend on why that’s valuable, as well as what could get in the way.

  1. Release what? We want to release our mobile app twice as often.But we don’t want to sacrifice quality
    Stating our desired outcome
  2. Why do we want to release twice as often? This may be obvious to you but it's safe to assume it's not obvious to everyone you need involved. Do you want faster feedback from customers? Why else? This is where we’re ‘defining’ value in the mapping process.

    Why our outcome is important to us

  3. What obstacles are in the way? Testing takes a long time, and we need approvals from 3 different departments.

    What obstacles stand in our way?

  4. What investigations can we do? We could send out a survey (which may raise alarm bells). We could approach our director to ask for support. We could map the value stream to measure and locate the biggest constraints.

    What can we do to learn more?

    At this point, they have enough to move forward with clarity and confidence, but in some cases, we can go even further to define measurements and methods to make progress even more actionable.

  5. How will we measure progress? Assigning owners for the release stream would be a big milestone. We can create a prioritized backlog to tackle the highest value items. Creating a living visual reference as a value stream map would be great as well. In terms of quantifiable measurements, lead time, change failure rate, and deployment rate are great measurements for this purpose.

    How can we measure progress? 

  6. What methods will we use to make progress? Should we collect survey data and document it in a wiki? Create a visual representation? Will it be maintained by the owners? Automation is an easy option, provided the team has capability.

    What can we do to make progress?

They created an outcome map to clarify a team-wide understanding of the goal, why it's valuable, what obstacles could impact success, key investigations to improve odds of success, and indicators that will reveal progress. The team discovered that out of 8 members, everyone had a different idea of what would be the most critical contribution to the outcome.

By starting with the clarity of the Outcome Map, the team is heading in one direction together. Having a map makes it easy to communicate within and beyond the team.

"We're all on the same page and aware of what may lie ahead. We revealed that our regulatory requirements will demand a careful mitigation strategy, and our lack of test automation is a sore spot."

After creating their outcome map, everyone from the CEO to the newest hire shared the same view of where they were headed, and what it would take to make progress.

The output from mapping fed into prioritization and the start of a clear roadmap defining next steps. The team set off working with awareness, confidence, and alignment. With a few weeks of effort, the team was operating far beyond their target outcome and on to bigger and better things.

Armed with a compass and map, the team has a clear direction, knowledge of the landscape between their position and destination, and supporting metrics to keep them on track. They can easily tackle a prioritized set of initiatives aligned to their true north. They have velocity and quality metrics to inform them when something is pulling them in the wrong direction. They can see the path to success, which they have confidently defined to avoid obstacles and mitigate challenges. They can clearly and constructively collaborate along the way with everyone involved or affected.

"We can now see a clear path to success, together. Everyone from individual contributors to leadership can share the same view and alignment. We went from 8 different ideas of where to focus to 2 clear, prioritized opportunities. We know exactly what to do next, and can act safely in the knowledge that our compasses and maps will keep us on track. We can craft data-driven hypotheses that drive rapid, measurable experiments. We can periodically measure against our baseline to see, share and celebrate progress."

Every 3-6 months beyond outcome mapping, they can now re-evaluate your current state and set off in a new direction, or set their sights higher.

Start from clarity, build confidence, aim for success.

Knowledge work in general, and software delivery specifically is incredibly complex. The systems, human interactions, and pace of change all combine to create a very challenging machine to debug and improve. You can’t get there with only quantitative metrics. You need to be able to see and share, and look beyond the data you have available. DevOps is about collaboration and aligning groups with different incentives, so shared understanding is like gold. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good map is novel delivered in a second. The best maps can be easily and quickly understood by anyone from the C-Suite to the new hire, and across any department. In an age of constant collaboration, sharing the same understanding is a superpower.

The context here and examples provided are primarily focused on improving software delivery performance, but you could leverage these mapping techniques to improve outcomes in incident response, marketing, hiring strategy, or even a sales process. Anywhere you need to improve the delivery of valuable outcomes, whether it’s to employees, the business or customers.

When to Map

You know the saying: The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is today. If you don’t have clear performance data on your workflow today, clear pictures of what it looks like, and a clear path to better, wouldn’t you like to have that ASAP? After right away, this practice is valuable every 6 months. Let’s say after mapping you identify 3 high priority, relatively simple improvements to implement right away. It will likely take at least 3 months to see measurable progress, and then with 3 more months of progress and operation you’ll have enough data and experience with the current state that you can map it again and look to a new outcome. In six months you’ll have both made enough progress that you’ll have a new desired outcome, as well experience with new bottlenecks to identify and tackle.

In practice, the outcome mapping process consists of at least one 2 hour session to go from scratch to a fully formed map ready for action. You can see in the example below a very extensive outcome map, which covers goals and pains, values and principles, prioritization, and experiment definition. As you go from the raw input towards insight, you can rearrange the maps as you like, and easily export them to be shared throughout the organization.

Where to Map

I started Outcome Mapping before work was shifted to remote-first, and it was great to have a group physically present in the same room to map. The energy, sense of connection, and tangibility of an in-person workshop is unmatched in virtual space. That being said, there are many advantages to virtual mapping. It’s far easier for everyone to work at once, there’s never a facilitator blocking the board, and handwriting is never a problem. You can easily export and share the results of virtual mapping, and it’s easy to preserve for future reference, or update as things change. You can save a lot of time working across teams and sessions by using templates. It’s worth considering even in a fully co-located team just for the ease of access and collaboration it provides.

Example map board in progress

Any shared visual board tool will work well for these maps. There are dozens of free tools that allow for real-time collaboration, and many allow for anonymous voting and other powerful facilitation capabilities. The important part is to build them collaboratively, or at least get fast and varied feedback from everyone involved and affected. These days, that means online, but this is all possible with a whiteboard, paper, post-its or almost anything you can write on together. For each map, you’ll likely need 2 hours for an extremely skilled facilitator with prior experience, or 4 hours for a new attempt.

Where to Find More

Although these practices are based on decades of experience, study, and existing techniques, this is a new method. You can find a wealth of information about the techniques these maps are based on from these sources:

4 Maps, from Clarity to Capability

Outcome maps the starting point for 4 Key Maps that provide a comprehensive view of the landscape that your value stream traverses. Using the maps to guide your focus, decisions, and efforts, you can scientifically approach your improvement efforts using a visual, collaborative, and easily understood medium.

I’m always creating more content and context that will be published on LinkedIn, Twitter and You can also subscribe here to get the latest info as it’s published. To learn more about the origins and be part of the evolution of Flow Engineering yourself, check out the full, free ebook here and bring your ideas, issues, and perspective!

If you’re not ready to dive in on your own based on the examples here (and they are rather slimmed down for illustration), I’d be happy to guide you. Grab a spot on my calendar here. I’ll gladly give you a tour, and set you up in the right direction!

About the Author

Steve Pereira is obsessed with making tech human, and leveraging it to deliver continuous value. For over 20 years, his focus has been on using mapping techniques to guide ambitious and struggling teams towards their true north. He's a former startup CTO, agency consultant, systems and release engineer, finance IT manager, tech support phone jockey, and pizza maker. All focused on the flow of value, all the time.


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