Systems vs. goals in your search for success

Much is said about whether success is better framed as a goal or as a system…I think it’s both, but at different times.

Geoff Wilson

Have you ever had a question posed to you that made you think more than it should have?

A team member recently asked me if I was a goal-oriented person.  My response was that I was far more interested in having systems that enable success than in distilling success into specific goals.

I’d rather have a system for serving clients than the goal of serving a certain number of clients or projects.  I’d rather have a system for developing people than the goal of developing a certain number of people.

Like many, I’ve read plenty of blogs on the systems vs. goals dichotomy that was probably best laid out by Scott Adams of Dilbert fame in his book How to Fail at Almost Anything and Still Win Big:  Kind of the Story of My Life.

Here’s a 2013 blog post from Adams on the topic.

In short, the thesis is that goals are self-limiting and sometimes counterproductive, while systems often perpetuate success by building habits that are perpetual.  The diet analogy Adams uses is a good one.  Which one would you rather have:  A goal of losing 10 pounds (which is often met but rarely maintained) or a system of eating more healthily?  Most people would agree that a system of healthy eating is a much better all-around approach to success.

But it’s only half right.

As with many things that relate to economics, tradeoffs, and incentives, the reality is very different depending on the time scale and existential realities one lives within.  For instance, economic systems of different types fit best at different societal scales. Pretty much every household is a miniature communist dictatorship of some kind (a goals-based economy where the head of household allocates resources to needs from abilities). Whereas countries do much better under mixed capitalist economies (which are much more about setting systems and guidelines).

And just like this, the systems vs. goals quandary is best viewed not as a dichotomy but as a matter of context.

To wit, if you really need to fit into your old tuxedo, then a goal of losing 10 lbs is worth a heck of a lot more than a system of healthy eating. And, if you want to develop a system for success, then setting incremental goals for development can actually be highly effective. Likewise, if your highly systematic business model that has delivered value for many years suddenly hits a snag, then you’d best start achieving some specific financial, customer, and operational goals, or else your business won’t survive long.

Where systems and goals get most confounded is when the goal is confused for the system.  In our strategy practice, we often see companies setting financial goals and calling them–at least implicitly–strategy.  This is very common when financial sponsors are involved in companies. The question of whether a business model should earn a given EBITDA margin is often subordinated to the fact that it simply has to.  

That’s a failure of goals dominating systems.

So, what’s the takeaway from all of this?  I think it’s that it is perfectly fine to manage life to goals in crunch times, crises, and during transformations.  Goals aren’t the problem, but as Scott Adams implies, they are also not the end. Goals, by definition, can be met.  And that’s where systems come in.  Systems should be perpetual.  They should be molded and shaped, but never “met” or “achieved.” Use goals, but don’t let them crowd out the need to develop systems.

You’ll be better for it.

What do you think? 

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