I periodically get a broad description of how to perhaps solve a problem at work but then at the end of the email the phrase "or something to that effect" is included. Does that mean - 'just get me the outcome' and forget how I told you to get there?
The phrase something to that effect is used to indicate that the description need not be followed exactly but is more of an outline of what you should do, leaving some flexibility, especially in the details, up to you. For example, if you're told the following:
Don't re-invent the wheel. Use a standard library. Maybe JQuery, or something to that effect.
Then you shouldn't just ignore the entire message and write your own framework as long as the results are the same. However, you would be free to use a different standard library if a better option existed.
The phrase is also used to indicate that something was paraphrased rather than an explicit quote. For example, you might hear someone say:
He told me to forget the promotion, or something to that effect.
In this case, the speaker is saying that while whatever was actually said had the same intent as the phrase forget the promotion, it was not necessarily those exact words.
The (stock) phrase "something to that effect" means "something similar".
It could be paraphrased as "something having that effect", but it's important to note that the expression is often used after providing one possible solution to a problem. Note that "effect" there doesn't mean "the effect of solving the problem". It means "something structurally/logically similar to the solution just outlined".
You are correct. The phrase "or something to that effect" implies the process of producing the desired outcome is ambiguous. It also implies the writer is unfamiliar with alternatives or an effective solution.