Implications of Process and Outcome Focus
Organization Science 20(3), pp. 500–515, ©2009 INFORMS
et al. 1993). In ongoing teams or those coming froma shared context, understandings about standard oper-ating procedures or expected outcomes may already bein place (e.g., Woolley 2009). Whether self-generatedor imported from their context, early decisions aboutprocesses or outcomes assert a structural inﬂuence oversubsequent decisions the team makes. For example, aprocess-focused research group might decide to pursueits work by ﬁrst establishing a weekly meeting of adetermined length with the entire group, accomplish-ing whatever outcomes it can within those parameters.In contrast, an outcome-focused group might ﬁrst deter-mine its objectives for a particular time frame and thendetermine whether meetings are necessary and, if theyare, when they should be held and who should attend.As subsequent decision points about a group’s progressare encountered, I argue that the early pattern of relativeemphasis on outcomes or processes is replicated, withthe process-focused group constraining their outcomes totheir weekly meeting schedule and the outcomes-focusedgroup constraining their processes to meet their objec-tives. In this manner, a team’s outcome or process focusis perpetuated over time.
Early cues (e.g., conversations, in-structions, expectations) encourage a relative emphasison process or outcomes that is sustained over time in ateam’s work.
A focus on process or outcome is further perpet-uated in a team through the inherent inﬂuence of each orientation on the action identities team mem-bers adopt in their work. Work on action identiﬁcation(Vallacher and Wegner 1987) has shown that individ-uals can identify actions as low-level speciﬁc activi-ties (e.g., “I am designing an advertisement to sell thisproduct”) or in higher-level terms that encompass mul-tiple speciﬁc alternative activities for enactment (e.g.,“We are generating as much proﬁt from this productas possible”). The level at which people identify theiractions is highly inﬂuenced by cues provided by thetask context (Vallacher et al. 1989). Process-focusedteam discussion can involve identifying speciﬁc tasksand subtasks, assigning tasks to members, and specify-ing how these activities will be coordinated across peo-ple and/or over time. Members come to identify theiractions at a low level, reasoning in terms of speciﬁctasks and their own personal role rather than higher-level team goals. In contrast, outcome-focused team dis-cussion centers on identifying desired results of work and the internal or external criteria for success. Norma-tive pressures serve to create uniformity in members’perceptions and discussion (Sherif 1936) while reinforc-ing and maintaining the level of action identiﬁcation inthe team, as members resist discussion that changes thelevel at which their actions are identiﬁed. For instance, amember of a process-focused product development teamwho questions individual tasks by trying to discuss thehigher-level meaning of what the team is really trying toaccomplish (e.g., “Will advertising increase our proﬁt?”)will be seen as slowing the team down, whereas a mem-ber of an outcome-focused team that tries to get lower-level and tactical (e.g., “Should we hire Michael Jordanas a spokesman?”) will be seen as similarly inappropri-ate. The cues that members give to sanction one anotherfor changing their focus can be subtle, such as ignor-ing someone’s off-level comment, or can be more direct,to the extent that members experience such commentsas attempts to change their own personal work (e.g.,the team member from marketing might respond, “If wearen’t going to advertise, why am I on the team?”). Inthis manner, team norms maintain the level of actionidentiﬁcation that is dominant in the team, which servesto further reinforce the team’s task focus.
Actions are identiﬁed at a signiﬁcantlyhigher level in outcome-focused teams than process-focused teams.
Outcome Focus, Process Focus, and TheirConsequences for Adaptation and Performance
In considering the discussion that leads to an outcomeor process focus in a new team, it is important to keepin mind that many teams tend to forgo any task discus-sion whatsoever unless they are explicitly encouraged(or even mildly coerced) to engage in it (Hackman et al.1976, Hackman and Wageman 2005, Shure et al. 1962).Given this tendency, any discussion—either process oroutcome focused—is likely to be beneﬁcial when com-pared with no organized discussion, because any plan-ning activities will help teams develop a better sharedbasis for proceeding with work, regardless of the group’sfocus (Klimoski and Mohammed 1994, Weingart 1992).When left to their own devices, teams can become“unfocused” by either failing to have any organized dis-cussion or by allowing members to develop differentfoci, which inhibits engagement in shared planning andleads members to work at cross-purposes (Dougherty1992, Woolley et al. 2008). In other instances, teamsmay begin to discuss the issues necessary for organiz-ing work but then become distracted by the work itself and instead fall back on “in-process planning” (Weingart1992). In such cases, getting team members to discussand come to agreement on core issues is likely to yieldbeneﬁts when compared with no intervention, becausegetting a team to discuss their work together in anycapacity can allow them to be relatively more orga-nized and productive than not doing so (Hackman et al.1976).
Interventions prompting either out-come- or process-focused discussion improve team per-formance when compared with the results where therehas been no intervention.