Systems vs. Goals

What are YOU passionate about?

I am currently reading How to Fail at Almost Everything and still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams of Dilbert Fame. The concept of Systems vs. Goals caught my eye and I wanted to share it with you.

“Goals are for losers.”

One of the most astounding claims he makes is that Goals are for losers. He goes on to explain

Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.

and further

The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.

I’m assuming you feel good every time you apply your system, because your brain ‘knows you are doing something good’ and dopamine gets released in your brain’s reward center.

How does this work in practice? Two examples from my life

Interestingly enough, I have unknowingly applied this systems tactic in my life in at least two areas in 2017.

System for Working out

I’ve been wanting to get fitter and healthier and work out on a consistent level for a while. I’ve had streaks of working out, but not an ongoing routine.

This year I’ve managed to succeeded in being very consistent with working out.

And I think the main reason for success was to use a systems approach with two main ingredients.

Ingredient 1: Social Contract

Instead of having a goal to reach a certain fitness level, I paired up with my good friend Martin who works out regularly. Whenever he goes to work out, he’s expecting me to be there, and I need a really good excuse for not showing up. Not wanting to let down a friend is a strong motivator for me to show up, even when I don’t ‘feel like it’.

Ingredient 2: A set time and place.

Martin works out Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6pm, always at the same place. Having a set place and time reduces the decision making agony of ‘should I work out today? where should I go workout? when should I work out?”. My brain/body simply know when and where to work out.

For 7 months now I have been working out consistently. I’ve only let occasional travel, sickness or very important social events interfere with the habit.

Lesson learned: Create a system where you minimize decision making (time and place are set) and increase pain for not doing the habit (friend would be disappointed)

System for Sales

When I recently took up the task of building out the influencer marketing division at Dealini.ch, we set ourselves a very ambitious sales goal. We had two months to make CHF 250'000 (about 250,000 USD) in revenue. We had never sold this product and lacked credibility in selling influencer marketing.

While we didn’t quite reach our goal, we still went way above the revenue expectations of almost anyone within the company who’d been selling to the same clients for years.

What made us successful?

I unknowingly created a system. In hindsight, I’ve identified the following key ingredients that made it successful.

Step 1: Transform Goal into actionable System

Besides calling clients we already had a relationship with, I assumed that our biggest source of revenue would be new clients we had never spoken with. We also assumed that emailing them would be the most efficient approach to get to the decision maker within the prospect.

Using Excel and several assumptions about our offer-to-booking, meeting-to-offer and email-to-meeting rates, I made a rough estimate on how many emails each rep should be sending out per day (=net new contacts) in order to reach the set revenue goal of 250k.

Notice how ‘reaching 250k in revenue’ is not directly actionable. There are lots of things that could and should be done to reach that goal, such as prospecting, doing calls, negotiating etc.

I figured that it was hard to control our conversion rates from one step in the sales funnel to the next. However it seemed pretty easy to control how many new companies we would reach out to per day. We could simply send out more emails by either a) working longer hours b) adding more people to the team to send out emails or c) tweak the amount of emails sent per hour per rep with better technology and process.

Now I had an activity that was influenceable, measurable, could be done every day. I assumed that a certain sense of daily accomplishment and friendly competitiveness would also help our team stay on track. So I wanted to make sure everyone would always see how many reaches they’d done each day and also see how many reaches other people had done.

Step 2: Making it visible

In order to give people the daily sense of accomplishment and make the friendly competitiveness come alive, I was looking for a solution that would take activity data from our CRM and show everyone in the company what the team was doing on a daily basis.

A friend recommended Plecto. This tool was a perfect fit for our needs, as it connected with Pipedrive and allowed me to build a custom dashboard that showed all of our core KPIs. Our dashboard showed emails sent per day per rep, emails sent per rep per week, revenue per rep per week and total revenue goals.

Our real-time sales dashboard on huge screen visible to anyone in the company

Seeing the daily stat of the amount of cold emails sent turned out to be incredibly motivating. There was simply no excuse for not hitting the goal. Also, on the revenue side, nobody wanted to be last and we all really started pushing forward.

We ended up doing CHF 133,500 in revenue by the start of our influencer campaign. It was way below our goal, but still above the expectations of almost anyone within the company. Besides Influencer Marketing being a hot topic und us having had a decent offering, I credit the daily outreach system coupled with a friendly competition between reps as the main reason we did so well.

Updating Scott’s claims, I would argue that having an initial goal in this case was very important. It allowed us to translate the goal into a system with goals we could hit on a daily basis. So having a goal is very important. But without translating it into a system you can repeatedly apply, you are less likely to reach it.

Lessons learned: Initial goal is important to create the right system. Friendly competitiveness and visible measuring of your system being applied can be huge motivators.

Underlying principle: Becoming the person

What seems to happen is that you start becoming a person who works out regularly or a person who reaches out to new prospects every day. And then you feel good every time you take the action. You start becoming a person who naturally does this. And you start doing it regularly and more frequently than you would otherwise do it. It turns the path into the goal. You reap benefits of feeling good every time.

How to translate a life or business goal into a system and succeed

I’ve tried abstracting the steps from my example to come up with a system for creating systems (sneaky me):

  1. Take a goal you have in life.
  2. Set a slightly unreasonable date by when you think you can achieve it.
  3. Find the one core activity that will move you closer towards reaching that goal that you can do every day or every other day.
  4. Estimate out how often per day or per week you have to do it to reach your goal.
  5. Enhance your system with as many of the following ingredients to increase likelihood of follow-through
    a) social contract, ie friend who keeps you accountable
    b) measure and track activity through dashboard
    c) set time and place you do the activity to reduce decision making on when to start
    d) friendly competitiveness, by having a leaderboard or reward for the winner
  6. Murphy-Jitsu your system until you would be very surprised that you did not reach your goal.
  7. Start doing the activity and do not forget to track whenever you do it.
  8. Enjoy the activity every time you do it!

Call to Action for You

How can you apply this to your life?

Which goals you have can you turn into systems you can apply every single day?

What systems do you currently have, and how can you improve them?

How can you add social contracts, set time and place, measurability, visibility to increase the likelihood of consistently applying your system?

Read about how to achieve anything with the 5-step process that led Ray Dalio to a $100B hedge fund.

Press the clap button if you want others to get this good advice :)