There is a lot written about systematic improvement. Most of the time this references some complex computer system, business process or environmental factor. But taking a systematic improvement mindset is also helpful when we are trying to reach our personal goals.
Most people take a haphazard approach to improvement in their lives. They just want to coast along and only work on improving after something motivates them.
I’ve spent my whole career working on projects at many different organizations. From Fortune 1000 companies to working with local artists, I’ve seen how projects can take many different paths.
One of the most important things that I have found is that progress is crucial. But instead of focusing on making progress, most people get stuck trying for perfection.
The world is becoming increasingly complex. Every year tax code expands, the rules around business change, and governments come up with new regulations. With all of the complexity it is easy to see why we often turn to linear thinking when faced with problems.
Linear thinking cuts through most of the information and focuses on 2 factors. It looks at cause and effect, or right and wrong, and tries to fit the situation into those factors and ignores everything else.
We all have too much to do. We have competing priorities and people around us seem to want more and more from us.
Life gets complicated and the natural reaction for us is to try and do more. As things get added we keep adding to our to do lists.
Setting goals can be a great way to take control and reach new levels of success. Setting a goal can put focus on an area and give a clear vision of where you want to end up.
But I have found that in some situations setting specific goals is an exercise in futility. Instead I needed to focus on the direction I want to go, not on setting a specific target to hit.
Having a vision for the future is important. It is important in business to have a vision for a product, initiative or company and it is important for us to have a future state that we are working for.
But vision by itself is meaningless. Many people want things in life. They want to have more or be more or do more but they aren’t doing the things they need to do in order to reach that level.
Recently my wife and I took our daughters to breakfast. After breakfast my 3-year-old decided that she wanted pie. We tried to explain to her that she couldn’t have pie right after eating breakfast.
But she had it in her head that she wanted pie. So she threw a temper tantrum to try and convince us to give her some pie.
ears ago I worked for an organization that was trying to increase its revenue with some new, innovative products. The stated goals were all around driving customers to these new solutions to make money for the company.
But the company seemed like it was doing things that worked against its goal of increasing its customer base and driving more money into the organization. Many people became convinced that the leadership was deliberately trying to sabotage the organization.
I’ve written several articles that detail the benefits of systems thinking over thinking linearly but the truth is that both ways of thinking have benefits.
While thinking linearly misses some important systematic information and can lead us down a path of failure when problem-solving it does have some advantages. But if we can utilize the systems thinking mindset and be aware of some potential limitations, we can effectively get the best of both worlds.
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.
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