Goals vs. systems and its implications on management

In his book – How to Fail at Almost Everything And Still Win Big – Dilbert creator Scott Adams asserts that ‘goals are for losers while systems are for winners.‘ In his words –

Losing ten pounds is a goal (that most people can’t maintain), whereas learning to eat right is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower.

The difference between the two, in his mind, is that goals are one-and-done things while systems are enduring and don’t focus on the short term.  So, stay away from goals and focus on systems is his advice.

I thought I’d deconstruct this today and analyze the goals and systems idea in further detail.

First, from a self management perspective, I think Scott is spot on. I think of goals vs. systems as a focus on results vs. a focus on process. Focusing on results means spending large portions of time outside our circle of influence as we don’t generally control outcomes. Additionally, it also means walking down the “judger” path. A focus on process is not just better because it is a happier path (it is that, too). It is better because our circle of influence grows in direct proportion to the amount of time we spend within it.

However, the difficulty with extreme points of view is that there are always exceptions (I think Scott took the extreme point of view just to make a point). And, there is an important exception to the systems/process path. Every once in a while, we need to check if our processes are leading to the outcomes/goals we have in mind. The inherent assumptions with systems is that we design systems that work. So, if we take – I will lose 10 pounds (goal) vs. I will lead an active life (system), it is vital that we check in every once a while to make sure our system is leading to the desired outcome of feeling healthier. In that sense, we need both goals and systems. And, consistent with Scott’s point of view, I think it is better we focus on systems.

When we apply the goals vs. systems idea to management, however, the implications are interesting. When it comes to dealing with others, I think that managing via systems is a bad idea. Managers who try to control their employees’ processes become annoying micro-managers. This is because the nature of systems is that they are personal. What works for the manager will likely not work for his colleague. And, that’s okay. As long as she’s getting her work done in a way that is consistent with the values and culture of the firm, the manager shouldn’t meddle.

So, in this case, it is vital that we, as managers and leaders, focus our energies on setting clear goals for those we manage/lead. And, just like in the self-management case, it is worth checking in with their systems/processes from time to time just to ensure they’re not doing something completely wrong. Trust, but verify.

So, if I had to abstract from all this analysis and arrive at the principle, it would be this – don’t think goals OR systems. Think goals AND systems and tailor based on context. When it comes to managing ourselves, it is best to focus on processes/systems instead of goals/results. And, when it comes to managing others, hold them to outcomes instead of processes. In both cases, don’t abandon the other. Check in with your goals from time-to-time to make sure your processes are taking you where you want to go and vice versa.

As a wise friend once told me when I was grappling with a “this or that” question -“Whenever I am faced with such a dilemma, I ask myself [very deeply] what it would take to replace OR with AND.”

The process wisdom frontier

As you all know, I’ve been going on and on about the idea about the idea of focusing on ‘process’/systems vs. goals for many months now. I’m sure a search for process will provide an inordinate number of hits in the past year. It has definitely been top of mind in my approach to life.

As I reflect on the progress I’ve made in the past 3 years, I realize that, overall, a lot of things have worked well. For example, I’ve learnt to enjoy the journey a lot more instead of simply driving with an eye on the destination. This, in my opinion, has translated to a better quality of work and deeper learning. It has also resulted in more repeatable processes wherein I’ve focused more on the “how” of learning instead of just attempting to get through it. And, finally, I find myself judging my preparation and performance a lot more than the outcome. That’s a big change and means it has definitely been a happier journey as we spend 99% of our time on the process.

But, there is one frontier I still haven’t overcome and this promises to be the toughest of them all. For important results, I find myself having to work very hard to truly let go of the outcome and just focus on the next process instead. I have to keep repeating the ‘you’ve done all you can and thinking about it now is useless’ idea. It still hasn’t worked nearly as well I’d like.

I realize it calls for a certain amount of detachment from outcomes and a fair amount of wisdom to channel energies only on things we control – both of which have, for the most part, eluded me so far. I guess I’m still experiencing very basic human instincts when I experience these feelings of anticipation. However, I also realize that wisdom is often about letting go of some of these instincts and learning to be above them. Perhaps a part of getting there is not doubting that great processes lead to great results. I don’t doubt the idea especially considering I’ve seen plenty of evidence of the truth in it. But, as far as my own experiences go, this has been a relatively new part of my life and I think I do have a pretty high internal burden of proof. So, perhaps, the full unquestioning belief will come in over time as I experience more good results following good processes.

Either way, letting go of results after a good process is likely to be the final frontier in my process quest. Looking forward to making progress. I will keep you posted on (you guessed it) the process – of course. :-)