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Systems Are Better Than Goals

Posted April 2, 2020


I’m a big fan of goals.  Setting goals is one of the most important things a leader can do.  Why?  Because if you don’t know what you’re aiming for, your chances of accomplishing anything meaningful are very slim.  Goals are great.  But systems are even better.

What is a system?

A system is set of detailed methods, procedures and routines created to carry out a specific activity, perform a duty, or solve a problem.  Put another way, a system is a pre-determined way of handling things so you get the results you want to get.

Systems and goals work hand-in-hand.  For example, an airline pilot has the goal of getting a plane full of people safely from departure to destination.  That same pilot uses a pre-flight safety checklist to help ensure the goal is reached.  A safe flight is the goal; a safety checklist is the system that helps make that goal a reality.

The goal is what you want; the system is what will get you there.  Consider a personal example.  You might have a goal to run a marathon in six months.  Your training regimen is the system that will help you make turn that goal into a reality.

Systems trump goals

While systems and goals are both necessary, it’s better to focus energy and attention on systems than on goals.  Why?  Because the goal is always in the future and the system is always in the present.  In other words, you can always be implementing the system, while the goal is something you can only reach once.

Joyce is a realtor who does okay but would like to do better.  Each year for the past several years, she sets a sales goal for the year.  She even breaks down that sales goal over each month.  But breaking a big goal into smaller goals does not help that much.  She has not hit her goals because she lacks a robust system.  On the other hand, Lisa is a realtor with a system.  She also has goals, but she reaches her goals because she has identified the activities, disciplines, and behaviors that will increase the likelihood of reaching those goals.  Lisa has systems for important aspects of her business, including networking, e-mail follow up, new client meetings, referrals, and showings.  Lisa typically exceeds her goals by putting most of her focus on creating, improving, and implementing her systems.

Leading with systems

How can leaders leverage systems?  In at least three ways.

First, use systems to become personally more effective.  Leaders can get buried beneath an avalanche of responsibilities.  Systems allow you to handle a greater load by expanding your efficiency.  For example, many leaders use a system for blocking chunks of focus time for important responsibilities such as communication or research.

Second, use systems with your team.  The best leaders are intentional about important aspects of the business such as meetings.  Instead of figuring out what each meeting should look like once you’re in the meeting, consider using a system for setting the agenda, moving through the agenda, and making decisions.

Third, ask your team to create systems for important and/or ongoing responsibilities such as hiring, performance reviews, sales, reporting, customer service, or whatever applies to your organization.  If it’s important to the company, it probably could benefit from having a system.

Worth the effort?

The biggest barrier to using systems is that they require more work on the front end.  For example, creating a system for making sales calls takes more time and energy than simply just making a sales call without a well-thought-out system.  But once you have a well-developed system, the payoff is that it makes every sales call thereafter way better.

Systems have a higher front-end cost, but a greater long-term payoff.  This is the principle of “go slow to go fast.”  For example, it takes time to create a meeting template, but having (and using!) the template will save time and lead to more productive meetings for years to come.  It’s a small investment with a big payoff!