Sunlight streamed through the windows, highlighting heads bent together as six groups of attendees grappled with some pretty big topics — how to avoid overcommitting themselves, how to control their emotions in the workplace, how to gain more respect as meeting professionals.

But these 31 women, participating in the W2W pilot program in March at Chaminade Conference Resort in Santa Cruz, Calif., weren't just having a discussion. They were wearing down pencils and erasers as they intently worked to capture their thoughts on a form that is designed to help them get beyond their problems to define usable solutions.

The group was using outcome mapping, a tool developed by Bob Bostrom, PhD, the L. Edmund Rast Professor of Business at the University of Georgia and president of Bostrom & Associates, a training, facilitating and consulting company in Columbia, Mo.; and Vikki Clawson, PhD, B&A's vice president and managing director. The meeting's facilitator, Diane Wendt, CEO/president of AtEz LLC, a coaching and consulting practice in Gilbert, Ariz., has used outcome mapping for more than 15 years with all types of groups to help them move beyond problem thinking into what she calls an “outcome-solving perspective.”

“The problem-solving perspective spirals you down, which can help pinpoint the problem but won't necessarily get you to the outcome you want,” says Wendt. “Plus, it can leave you stuck on the details of the problem, instead of finding ways to move forward. It also can sidetrack or derail individuals or groups from the real outcome they desire. When you're coming from an outcome-solving perspective, you focus on possibilities and opportunities instead of limitations or barriers to getting where you want to go.”

The key is to “flip” the question. So instead of asking, “Why do I have this problem?” or “Who is to blame for this problem?” you ask, “What do I want instead of this problem?” By flipping the question, you also flip the focus from the problem to the outcome you want. According to Wendt, that outcome must be well-formed — meaning it's positive, can be easily recognized when achieved, and is within your control to make happen. It also has to be worthwhile; in other words, says Wendt, the gains you would realize would outweigh the losses involved. You also have to have enough resources and time to achieve the outcome, and the outcome must be representative of your core values.

Let the Chunking Begin

Once you have identified the outcome you're after, you're ready to do what is called “chunking.” The key question to ask as you “chunk up” is, “What will having that do for me?” For example, if your initial outcome is, “I want to have a clean, organized office,” you then ask what having a clean office will do for you. Your first chunk up could be that it would improve your access to information. Then you could ask the question again, and the next chunk up could be that the improved access would let you improve your response time. That in turn could chunk up to a greater sense of accomplishment.

When the obstacles to achieving your desired outcome seem to be overwhelming, “chunking down” can help. The key question for chunking down is, “What stops me/us from getting the desired outcome?”

Once you identify a barrier, you ask, “What do I/we want instead?” In the clean office example, one barrier might be not having any file cabinets. The next level — What do I want instead of not having file cabinets? — is easy to answer: Get file cabinets. Wendt advises groups to keep asking questions and chunking down until they have decided on several concrete, attainable actions.

From Paper to a Plan

Once all the issues around the desired outcomes are “mapped” by chunking up and down, it's time to set an action plan. Groups are encouraged to answer their “What do we want to do instead?” questions, determine if they need any additional resources, and set a date to have them completed. It's also helpful to visualize what the desired outcome will look, taste, and feel like once it becomes a reality.

Many in the W2W group wished they could have started with slightly less lofty — and daunting — desired outcomes. They joked about trying to end world poverty. But in reality, they did manage to strategize, affirm to mission, and chunk down to final action steps in three key areas in less than one day.

As Wendt points out, most strategic planning sessions never get that far. “That's the beauty of using this methodology,” she says. “It's like music — you can't be depressed and play the banjo, and you can't stay stuck and use outcome mapping.”

Sample Outcome Map

Goal: Transform meetings into true adult education
Potential Outcomes: 1) Improve ROI and tie meetings more closely to organizational goals
2) Improve educational value of meetings
3) Increase perception of meeting planning as a profession
First Second Other Issues
What stops us? “Powers that be” who insist on traditional meeting formats and resist innovation Perception that different types of meetings will be more expensive Fear that attendees won't want to participate
What we want instead Support from leaders to implement meetings that follow proven educational models A cost-benefit analysis that shows they're not more expensive, and that they provide ROI Enthusiastic participants, growing attendance
What stops us? Lack of data to prove what we say will help them accomplish their goals Takes a lot of time and energy to work that out Attendees who would rather absorb than participate
What we want instead A compilation of research on adult education and what results in behavior change Someone else to do the work Attendees who understand the value of being active learners
Action Plan Compile existing research and case studies that will be compelling enough to overcome potential objections Explore existing research; talk with industry organizations to find what already exists; network with other planners to find those who have already done it to see if they can share results Find “spokespersons” in the company, organization, or profession who have benefitted from good adult education and are willing to spread the word among their colleagues.
Get the general media interested in highlighting meetings that follow adult educational guidelines and how attendees benefit