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Systems and habits are hard to change

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Systems and habits are hard to change

Scott Miker

The systems and habits in our lives are not easily changed.  Whether it is a habit that we want to stop doing or a new habit we are trying to create, we push against something very powerful.

This is why, so often, change fails.  We see this in the world around us as much as we see it in ourselves.  A new leader emerges but after years of their change policies, we aren’t really left in a better position.  More often than not the change is subtle and becomes change for the sake of change, rather than for improvement.

In The Tao of Systems Thinking, author Michael McCurley explains, “The world is filled with self-balancing systems.  Although we may attempt to change or disrupt them, these systems have a tendency to counterbalance or adjust to anything that is done to them, and revert to a new balance.”

I find it fascinating to look at these self-balancing systems.  It could be that the strategy that allowed one to grow, is ultimately what will hold them back, what Peter Senge calls Limits to Growth. 

I see this often in business owners.  In order to get their business to initially succeed they feel they have to do everything.  Their motto is, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.”

While this helps them maintain quality early in the business, as the business grows and more employees are added they no longer can maintain that same level as if they did the work themselves.  This then becomes a limitation because they will never grow significantly if they can’t step back and train others to produce enough quality on their own without the business owner stepping in.  Since his time is limited he grows busier and busier but the company isn’t becoming more effective.

I’ve also seen this when I taught at a community college.  Formal education in the US isn’t always designed to model the working environment.  For some students who excel at being a student, the same traits often fail them when they want to use them in the field.  The ability to absorb information in a classroom doesn’t mean they also have the ability to execute, which often means trying and failing instead of waiting until everything is perfect to move forward.  I’ve seen students who excelled in the classroom struggle because they have a difficult time moving from thinking about it to actually getting something accomplished. 

So in order to improve we have to be able to recognize when the system is holding us back and make changes to the system.  Many times this means being flexible.  We have to understand that what worked in the past might not work in the future.  Then we have to be willing to try something different. 

One way to do this is to constantly reset.  Basically you simply say to yourself, “ok here we are, what do we have to do now in order to improve?” 

Sometimes the answer is to keep going with the system.  Many times I found that the system is working but the pace might be slow.  If I set out to lose weight I may find the numbers on the scale slowly decreasing.  If so just keep going with the system you have in place.  Once it stalls, then look at ways to change up the system.  But don’t mistake slow progress for being a system failure because it isn’t. 

But in order to have that flexibility we have to understand the difference between progress and expecting perfection.  We have to be able to understand the trend.  Are we going in the right direction or the wrong direction? 

But too often we get this confused.  We don’t see perfection and assume we have to blow up the system and start all over.  To me this doesn’t mean flexibility.  This means we take a rigid approach and can’t make subtle improvements in the system over time.  Flexibility to me means that we can adapt and adjust in order to maintain progress. 

Systems have a self-balancing element to them that will work hard to maintain the system.  If we aren’t aware of this we can easily find the system pushing against our attempts to improve it.  To get around this we have to develop the right mindset, a flexible mindset and set out to always improve, which often means ignoring the desire for perfection.