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Stop sacrificing long term success for short term wins

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.  

Stop sacrificing long term success for short term wins

Scott Miker

There is a trend in business management right now where leaders of companies sacrifice the long-term health of their business to achieve quick results.  They do this by making shortsighted decisions that will bring in early wins but ultimately impact the future of the company in a negative way.

This makes sense when you study today’s business environment.  Board members seem more and more impatient.  They tend to look at the CEO with a “what have you done for me lately” mindset. 

But I don’t feel this is only an issue in business.  I think it happens everywhere.  Those of us who watch sports know that the team’s relevance is directly tied to recent success.  Win now and everyone pays attention.  Lose and you are quickly forgotten.

We even do this for our personal goals.  We want instant results to justify the increase in effort.  So we set outcome goals and we work hard to be able to quickly see the goal met.

But this actually sets us up for failure. It sacrifices long term success in an effort to have it now. It makes it so that extreme effort is needed in order to reach a goal, but that extreme effort isn’t likely to remain after we hit the goal.  In most situations we end up going back to our old habits and routines, which means we slowly move away from the growth we just experienced.

When we are striving to hit a goal, there are three factors that come into play.  The three factors are quick, easy, and effective.  In working towards a goal it can quick, or it can be easy, or it can be effective.  We can combine two but we can’t have all three together.

So if we work hard for a short time frame we can be effective.  If we decide we want take it easy and also have it quickly then it won’t be effective.  This is why most of the time we fail.  We want it quickly, but we don’t understand that having it quickly and effective, it won’t be easy.

But there is another way.  We can shift our thinking from short-term success to long-term success.  We can do this by focusing on systematic solutions.  Improving the systems and habits around a goal we can start slowly and work to turn small, easy improvements into habits.  Then we can build and grow those habits after they become automatic.  This is how we obtain effective and easy, by eliminating quick. 

The way this process works is to find very, very small improvements and then work to ingrain them in our lives.  We do this over and over and over and after a while we will realize that we are doing all of these great things and moving in the direction that we want without additional focus and effort.  It just happens automatically.    

The thing is that in business or sports or anywhere else people are using this method.  They work and work towards their goals and it takes a long time.  In business it tends to be focusing on improving the processes and procedures of the company.  In sports it is usually around a focus on the fundamentals.  But the reality is that nobody pays any attention during the formative period.  All of the things being done to slowly improve are ignored until they finally start seeing great success.  Then others take notice.  But don’t truly understand the long journey, they only see the outcome. 

Right now there are a lot of small businesses doing exactly this.  They are improving and growing and getting better.  They are setting themselves up for future success.  But we don’t hear about them until they reach a high enough level of success. 

The same thing happens in sports.  The golfer who is improving and working daily to get better isn’t usually winning tournaments.  But if she keeps doing the things necessary to improve we may pay attention after a few major wins.  But the process of how she got there is completely ignored.

By focusing on building and growing the right habits we start to work harder and harder without feeling as though we are increasing our effort.  It might look like we are increasing our efforts and there will certainly be examples of times when we do but in reality the more we work hard and systematize that work, the easier it becomes for us. 

One of the greatest systems thinkers around business and manufacturing is Dr. W. Edwards Deming.  Andrea Gabor wrote a book about Deming called The Man Who Discovered Quality.  It outlines Deming’s approach to improvement and how Japanese companies in the 1980’s were using his principles and achieving great results.  It wasn’t until companies like Toyota were stealing large chunks of market share from U.S. companies that anyone even took notice of what he was doing. 

In the book Gabor talks about problems with management that Deming identified and worked to remove systematically.  In one section Gabor writes, “The problem with management by objective (MBO), as it is generally practiced, is that an organization can usually achieve almost any objective it wishes to, in the short term, by paying a high enough price, including, in extreme cases, destroying the system itself.  By definition, MBO focuses on the end goal rather than the process.  For example, almost any company that is losing money can show a profit if it juggles the books and sells off its healthiest operations.  Long-term, however, that company has probably made its situation worse.”

Many times we take this same approach to personal improvement.  We want to see short-term wins and sacrifice long-term success in order to get these wins.  But shifting our mindset to be on improving the systems and habits in our lives we can start to build for the future.  Just as Deming advised throughout his career, this is how we reach the highest levels of success.