Managing for Meaningful Outcomes



By Charles G. Chandler, PhD

Texas, USA




Management has been called the technology of human accomplishment, yet traditional management approaches often fail to produce meaningful results. Management technology needs to be reinvented because it remains primarily organization-centric and locked into a largely meaningless input-output model that values efficiency as the highest good. Historically, this approach has been the basis for a vast constellation of organizations in business, government, and nonprofits sectors, but it generally fails to produce meaningful and timely evidence for management decision support, and frequently creates negative side-effects among internal actors and within the environment. Going forward, management technology needs to adopt a more meaningful input-outcome model that values positive organizational effectiveness as the highest good and serves to sustain or improve the health of both the organization and its environment as a holistic system. This is what managing for meaningful outcomes aims to achieve.


From 1982-1985, I was based in New Delhi India, working for the World Health Organization (WHO) in the regional office for SE Asia. It was during the UN’s International Drinking Water Supply & Sanitation Decade, 1981-1990 (better known as the UN Water Decade). At the time, I was the project manager for WHO/UNDP’s Advisory Services Project that was part of the Decade. My job entailed visiting countries in the region to see what was going right and what was going wrong with the Water Decade and helping participating government organizations improve their programs.

Government agencies in participating countries thought they knew what end users needed, since they had been providing water and sanitation services for decades. They said they just needed more funds to build more facilities. But completed facilities were frequently in disrepair, and others were not utilized by end users for the purposes intended due to a variety of reasons.

The goal of the UN Water Decade was to expand the ‘coverage’ of safe water and adequate sanitation in participating countries. The focus on coverage (i.e., access to services) turned out to be an unfortunate choice because the goal typically resulted in a numbers game in each country, where success was measured in rural areas, for instance, by how much of the population was covered with hand pumps & latrines. If rural users were within a few minutes’ walk from a hand pump, they were deemed to have access to safe water supply. The fact that some of the hand pumps were in disrepair and others were not being used for their intended purposes was not easily reflected in the system.

Much of the problem was due to a conceptual gap between the planners and the end users. They didn’t understand each other. The planners were delivering engineering solutions based on their technical training, but the adoption and use of their solutions was hampered in traditional societies by the embedded patterns of thought found in the social and cultural narratives of the past. Later in the UN Water Decade, WHO urged governments to look beyond coverage, to ensure the continued functioning of the completed facilities and their utilization by end users (for the intended purposes).

This example highlights a fundamental problem at the heart of traditional management approaches, that is, what counts as meaningful accomplishment. As we will see, the overall program goal for the UN Water Decade was set at the wrong level (a largely meaningless supply-side output which focused on ‘coverage’), which then drove what was delivered during implementation, and the subsequent evaluation of completed activities. Traditional management does not distinguish between arbitrary output-level objectives and meaningful outcome-level objectives during the objective setting process, and later during program implementation and evaluation. This problem was baked into management science at the beginning and has not been corrected since. Historical examples of this fundamental problem can be found in the Scientific Management movement of Frederick Winslow Taylor (Taylor 1911), the Management by Objectives approach pioneered by Peter Drucker (Drucker 1954), as well as some more recent management remedies such as OKRs — or Objectives & Key Results (Doerr 2018).


This paper is about managing for meaningful outcomes, a new approach to management that offers significant benefits for projects, programs, and organizations more generally, as well as the wider world. It would have made the UN Water Decade much more effective and sustainable.


To read entire paper, click here


Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English.  Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright.  This paper was originally presented at the 6th Annual University of Maryland PM Symposium in May 2019.  It is republished here with the permission of the author and conference organizers.

How to cite this paper: Chandler, C.G. (2019). Managing for Meaningful Outcomes; presented at the 6th Annual University of Maryland Project Management Symposium, College Park, Maryland, USA in May 2019; PM World Journal, Vol. VIII, Issue VII, August.  Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/pmwj84-Aug2019-Chandler-managing-for-meaningful-outcomes.pdf



About the Author

Charles G. Chandler, Ph.D.

Texas, USA



Charles G. Chandler graduated from the University of Texas at Austin (B.S. and Ph.D.) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (M.S.), where he studied engineering sciences. He served in the US Peace Corps in Nepal, and later worked at the Texas Water Development Board in Austin, where he managed the state’s program in water conservation and drought contingency planning. In 1982 he founded a management consulting firm (Assumption Analysis, Inc) and has undertaken assignments for clients related to project design, evaluation, and organizational management in 25 countries. Clients have included USAID, the World Health Organization, the UN Development Programme, the World Bank Group, the Asian Development Bank, and the African Development Bank, among others. Dr. Chandler is a member of the Academy of Management, is married, and lives in the Texas hill country.