Project Inputs, Activities, Outputs, Outcomes, Impact and Results
A thing is worth what it can do for you, not what you choose to pay for it. John Ruskin
Many people and organizations seem to have serious trouble separating between the inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, impact, and the results of a project. This leads to a lot of confusion, bad communication, disappointed project teams, and disappointed stakeholders. Below you will find my take on these terms and their relevance for your project.
Inputs are very often confused to be synonymous with activities. However, these terms are not interchangeable. Inputs, in simple terms, are those things that we use in the project to implement it.
For example, in any project, inputs would include things like time of internal and/or external employees, finances in the form of money, hardware and/or software, office space, and so on.
Inputs ensure that it is possible to deliver the intended results of a project.
Activities on the other hand are actions associated with delivering project goals. In other words, they are what your people do in order to achieve the aims of the project. In a software development project, for example, activities would include things such as designing, building, testing, deploying, etc. And in an up-skilling initiative the training of employees would be another of the activities.
These are the first level of results associated with a project. Often confused with "activities", outputs are the direct immediate term results associated with a project. In other words, they are the delivered scope, the tangible and intangible products that result from project activities. Outputs may include a new product or service, a new ERP system replacing the old one, or employees being trained as part of a digital up-skilling initiative.
Success on this first level of results is what I call "Project Delivery Success". It is about defining the criteria by which the process of delivering the project is successful. Essentially this addresses the classic combination of "scope, quality, time, and budget".
It is also limited to the duration of the project and success can be measured as soon as the project is officially completed (with intermediary measures being taken of course as part of project control processes). It is always a combination of measurements of inputs and outputs.
This is the second level of results associated with a project and refers to the medium term consequences of the project. Outcomes usually relate to the project goal(s).
For example, the new ERP system is used by all users in scope, uptime is 99.99%, customer satisfaction has increased by 25%, operational costs have decreased by 15%, and so on.
These criteria need to be measured once the product/service is implemented and over a defined period of time. This means it cannot be measured immediately at the end of the project itself. Success on this second level of results is what I often refer to as "Product or Service Success". It is about defining the criteria by which the product or service delivered is deemed successful.
This is the third level of project results, and is the long-term consequence of a project. More often than not, it is very difficult to ascertain the exclusive impact of a project since several other projects, not similar in nature can lead to the same impact. Example are financial value contribution (increased turnover, profit, etc.) or competitive advantage (market share won, technology advantage).
Success on this third level of results is what I call "Business Success". Business success is about defining the criteria by which the product or service delivered brings value to the overall organization, and how it contributes financially and/or strategically to the business.
Project results are the combination of outputs (level 1), outcomes (level 2), and impact (level 3). These levels combined will determine your overall project success. You can be successful on one level but not others.
Simply put, project success occurs when the results of the project add value to the organization. And the value of a project is defined by subtracting all of the costs from all of the benefits the project delivers. That is to say:
Value = Benefits Costs
3. ERP = Enterprise Resource Planning