There is a great quote by renowned systems thinker and author Peter Senge that says, “Business and human endeavors are systems…we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system. And wonder why our deepest problems never get solved.”
One of the things that I realized when I discovered systems thinking books and resources was that being able to think systematically helps break away from some of the inherent problems with thinking linearly. In addition, I realized how much systems thinking spills over into almost every aspect of our existence - from our health, the weather, cultural issues, politics, illness, etc.
I’m a huge fan of Wayne Dyer. He was a great author and had a way of explaining things that are difficult to explain. Yet somehow he made it all make sense.
When he evaluated the Tao Te Ching in his book Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, he took an incredibly wise book and made it understandable.
Years ago I was at a seminar and the speaker asked the audience to close their eyes and picture the color red. He said to think of red apples, red stop signs, red barns, and red strawberries.
After a minute or so he said to open your eyes. When I did, suddenly all of the red in the room came into focus. I saw the exit sign and the red sign for one of the sponsors.
People are very reactionary. We tend to be complacent until something happens or we get some new information and then feel motivated to change.
But the problem is that the information that tends to be given to us is “event” data not trend or systematic data.
Whenever we have multiple things that we want to do it can be difficult to know what to start on. Do we start with the big important goals or do we find some quick and easy ones to attack first?
Both approaches can be beneficial. They both can add value and can help us determine what to attack first.
When I was younger I thought that if I was doing something that I didn’t want to do I should stop doing it and look for something else.
There were many times that I felt something wasn’t right and my response was to stop doing it and find something else. If I disliked my job I would quit and look for a better job. If I didn’t like doing yard work I would find a way to get out of doing it or I would let it go until it was a complete mess.
One of the benefits to the systems and habits approach to improvement is that you are able to identify areas of inefficiency. You can see when you are wasting time, energy, resources etc.
In the various Lean business process improvement strategies, waste is used to describe areas that can be destructive to the business process and are unnecessary. But looking at waste through the Lean mindset is beneficial to our personal goals as well.
Most of the time we see our goals as a straight line. Because we usually know what to do, we think we just need the motivation to actually do it.
Sometimes this helps us to reach our goals but many times this just leaves us frustrated. It isn’t as simple as it seems to improve and even when we hit specific goals we set, we can’t maintain that improvement over time.
Many people feel that success happens in an instant. They assume that great inventions, artistic creations, profitable business ideas, sports victories and brilliant philosophical concepts are sudden.
This makes sense. The failure and hard work that lead to success can easily be overshadowed by the triumphant win.
Recently I heard someone say that the past is a horrible master. They followed it up by saying that it is a great teacher.
At first I didn’t think much of this quote. It seems like another cliché that tries to convince us to let go of the past and not let it control us.
Looking at things systematically and working to improve slowly over time by focusing on changing habits isn’t a new concept. But too often people confuse systems and habits with rigidity.
But the systems and habits approach to improvement doesn’t mean rigid thinking. It doesn’t mean creativity is absent. It doesn’t result in an inflexible model that ignores realities.
When I was about 23 years old I started to read books that inspired and motivated me to take control of my life. I started to be willing to take risks and I would disregard the opinions of others.
It was a very important time in my life. For years I felt constrained and confined to moving in the direction that others thought was best for me. This was my way of breaking free from this limiting and hopeless mindset.
The Greek historian, Plutarch, once said, “Character is a long-standing habit.”
But too often we associate character with something else. We think that our character isn’t defined by our routines and habits but by our bold action.
There is a great quote by Ann Landers. She said, “Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don’t recognize them.”
I love this quote. Not just because it emphasizes the hard work element of success but because we can all relate.
The other day I heard a quote that I have never heard before. It was a quote by Bill Bradley who was a hall of fame basketball player, a Rhodes scholar, and a U.S. Senator. With such a successful resume and covering such a wide range of areas, it is easy to see that Bradley understands how to succeed.
The quote that I heard from Bradley was, “Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.”
When a team has tremendous success, we all want to know how they did it. How did they succeed despite the odds being stacked against them? How did they overcome adversity and defeat others who wanted to win just as much?
Many times the answer is talent, preparation, or grit. But too often while searching for some magic recipe, we overlook reality. The reality is just that they executed better than anyone else.
The world seems to be getting more and more complex all the time. Many of us think of a simpler time when there wasn’t as much choice, wasn’t as much to do, and wasn’t as much to manage every day.
In many cases the answer is to simplify. We have to realize when we add unnecessary complication to something. But often this isn’t enough. We also have to be able to adapt to changing situations and growing complexity that is out of our hands.
We all know someone who is always busy, yet doesn’t seem to get things done. He or she works and works but doesn’t seem to get ahead.
Or maybe we feel like that at times. There is so much to do that we just put our head down and work and hope we get through it. But rushing through tasks doesn’t help us get ahead unless we are also addressing the systems and habits around getting things done.
Team building is a popular topic for seminars and conferences. Great leaders want to keep growing their ability to lead and build great teams. Inexperienced leaders look for a way to get better.
I have been fortunate to attend many of these events and I have also run some myself. One of the universal criticisms from attendees is that the ideas and motivation seem to fizzle out over time. They leave motivated but then find themselves back into their normal routine without lasting improvement.
Everyone wants to be perfect. We all want the world to fit into our idea of perfection. This causes us to view the world in a very biased way and makes it challenging to take action when things are less than perfect.
But in the real world this idea of perfection doesn’t exist. There will always be multiple variables and layers of complexity. There will be connectedness to other elements and people and we have to stop trying to define perfect in the traditional way.
In order to accomplish a goal we have to take action. We have to understand the work involved and make a consistent effort towards that goal.
Yet time and time again we miss that crucial part. We get caught up in the results we hope to achieve.
I was reading an article the other day that talked about leadership. It said that leadership is a set of principles. It argued that if we just know these, then we would be instantly transformed into a great leader.
But this is terribly misleading and incredibly irresponsible advice. It certainly fits with the mindset that says we can sit around and do nothing and success and riches are just something that will be handed to us because we somehow deserve it.
Striving to achieve a goal relies on addressing the underlying aspects of our lives. We have to be aware of, and improve, the systems and habits that drive our behaviors, our thoughts and our decisions.
When evaluating systems and habits, I use three criteria. First I want to see if a system is simple. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any complexity but it does mean that it is not unnecessarily overcomplicated. Are the aspects of the system as simple as possible? Without simplicity, it is extremely difficult for a system to be effective.
Team building is something most of us are familiar with. We tend to think of some group exercise or training to discover our strengths and then working together collaboratively to solve problems.
But most of us don’t look at team building systematically. We might attend a training session or read a book about leadership but we have a difficult time going from lesson to implementation.
Yesterday I decided to take advantage of the nice spring weather we are having and I took a walk on my lunch break. Being in downtown Cleveland, there are a lot of places to walk to and see and it makes for a relaxing break from work.
As I was walking down E 9th street I saw a man walking with a dog. I see quite a few dogs downtown on my walks but I noticed that this was a working dog. The man was blind and the dog was helping to guide him around the city.
When we want to improve in an area or reach a specific goal we have to set goals based on the process of reaching that goal. In other words, we don’t just pick a random number to shoot for; we investigate what it will take to make progress and then work to implement small systematic steps to get there.
There are various ways to look at systems. In product development it can be common to look at interdependent or integrated systems and contrast that with modular systems.
My natural tendency when I start to slack off on my goals is to feel guilty. I used to use this to try and motivate me to get back on track.
I assumed that feeling guilty would push me towards my goals and that I needed this extra motivation if I was going to stick with it enough to achieve whatever metric I set.
One of the advantages of taking the slow, systematic approach towards improvement is that it allows for flexibility. By utilizing the principles of systems and habits we can account for life’s natural ebbs and flows.
Flexibility is very important because no matter how much planning we do, there will be things that change. Unexpected obstacles and competing priorities make it difficult if we have too rigid of an approach.
One of the areas of improvement that can easily derail my efforts is to spend too much time judging my progress. Because we tend to set goals based on the outcome we hope to achieve, we want to have metrics and analysis to show that we are heading towards success.
The focus shifts from making slow progress towards our goals, to judging if we are getting there fast enough. The times when I have been caught up in this were times I failed. I would abandon what was working because it wasn’t working fast enough, and switch to something that I thought would work quicker but didn’t actually work at all.
The other day I was reading an article that talked about how startup tech companies have gone mainstream. The article pointed to these and tried to make the argument that more startups need to be able to scale to succeed.
The article used typical examples such as Facebook and Dropbox. It tried to make the argument that if we can help more companies achieve this level of success, then we can significantly improve the economy.
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