Never set a goal alone: How 9 friends created a system to achieve whatever they wanted (for 3 months)

The MANC timer started. Ellen was sitting in a circle with 8 friends on a Sunday afternoon. She had 25 minutes to share a goal she wanted to work on for the next 3 months.

Ellen: I want create a daily stretching habit. I do this physical therapy to help with some ongoing pain.
Group: If daily stretching is so important to you, why have your previous attempts failed?
Ellen: Honestly, I haven’t been successful because I don’t enjoy stretching. While I know it’s good for me, I opt for other things when the time comes to stretch.

After 20 more minutes of integration, Ellen, landed on her goal and her accountability system.

Target: Stretch routine five times a week, in the evenings.
One time actions: She would modify the routine so she didn’t need any additional equipment (which eliminated excuses) .
Accountability: To get motivated enough to overcome the deep lack of enjoyment, she paired up with another participant — Phil. Phil also wanted to stretch. They agreed that if either one of them missed the five day target BOTH of them would pay $100 to an unknown crypto currency (i.e., throw money away). Ellen was literally banking on the fact that making Phil pay $100 for her laziness would be way more uncomfortable than stretching.

After 3 months, despite still hating stretching, Ellen and Phil completed 74/75 of their promised stretches (99% compliance). The 1/75 (Phil’s fault) cost them $100 each.

On that one Sunday, five people committed to create a new habit in their life. Four people committed to accomplish a big, hairy, audacious goal.

By the end of the three months, 8 of 9 people hit 70% or higher of their stated goal. The one who didn’t got injured and had to drop out of their a half marathon.

How is that possible?

MANC is short for Mutually Assured Non-Complacency. Plainly, it’s a system that uses the people closest in your life to assure you don’t fall into status quo ruts. You do this by defining new desired personal behavior (“goal”) and putting in systems to achieve it (“accountability system.”)..

This isn’t a new concept. In fact accountability systems like MANC are found in nearly every workplace in America and they are shockingly similar to each other. You have regular meetings with your peers to discuss what you’ve accomplished and plan to accomplish. You document your goals with your manager. You pre-commit to outcomes for the next three months (KPIs). You internally agree to launch dates for new initiatives. You make expensive decisions that lock you into these dates, making it hard for them to slip.

But strangely — when we as individuals, and not corporations — are looking to accomplish something new or big in our personal lives, we do not take a page from this book. There’s a reason businesses use these systems …. It’s because THEY WORK.

So you think you can MANC? How to implement with your friends…

Step 1: Hold a half day MANC

(Do it soon and it can be your 2018 Q1 MANC planning session)

The first part of workplace accountability — and MANC — is sharing your goals (KPIs) with others and getting feedback to refine. Meet for at least a half day, or enough time such that everyone gets an ‘all eyes on them” 20–40 minutes. To make it productive, it’s been helpful to have 30 minutes of personal reflection up front to allow people space to articulate exactly what they want. Use this guide to structure the day and feedback session.

Who should be in your group? It’s best if you are doing this with people you see or engage with often. For us, it was the roommates in our communal house. It could also be co-workers, college friends or a sports or book club that has shared interests. Make sure the group is more than 2 so that if one loses motivation, the other is not stuck.

Step 2: Setup a weekly (or daily) reporting system

In the last five years, most software teams have instituted the ‘daily scrum’. The daily scrum meeting is not a status update meeting in which a manager is collecting information. Rather, it is a meeting in which team members make commitments to each other. Our group decided to institute a weekly scrum. Because we weren’t all in the same location, it had to be digital.

Every person was asked to submit an email report that auto-posted to our group slack, articulating what they had done, what they were planning and if they had blocker. This regular posting helped prompt planning and opened up offline conversational outlets to ask people how they were doing.

In addition some people partnered up and had 1:1 accountability. They had to text their partners if they didn’t meet their commitments. This reporting was in addition to the accountability system that each person set up that was customized to their goals.

Example of Richard posting weekly progress on his words written

Jon posted his running schedule for the upcoming week

Dharmista was excellent at posting pictures of her Wednesday workouts.

Four things we learned while instilling workplace accountability in our personal lives

#1 Our friends give great feedback. We need to give them social permission to release it.

We’ve done this twice over six month. Each time all 9 people in our group had their goal improved after they presented it to the group. With feedback, it got more achievable and more relevant to their life. The key? Creating a safe space that made it OK to give hard feedback.

The group asked: If you haven’t achieved this goal already, why not? What’s the barrier? Are you sure this is the right behavior to focus on? There were a couple linchpin members of the group who asked the tough questions and drilled down to the core issues. Almost everyone’s goal statement and plan changed (usually in the direction of “more realistic”) as a result of the friend firing squad.

#2 There are two kinds of goals: 1) Habits and 2) Big Hairy Audacious Goals. They should be treated differently.

Habits:

Starting a new habit requires a daily shot of motivation to keep it up. This is tough! Joey found the secret sauce while trying to stop a habit — a sugar addiction. He amped up his motivation to quit sugar by watching two documentaries about the evil sugar industry. In addition, because intrinsic motivation isn’t always enough, he committed to publicly post on our Slack channel every time he ate a sweet. He instilled reputation risk. No one wants to feel like a failure. And Joey wasn’t. He is now addicted to checking the sugar content and is eating less sweets.

Big Hairy Audacious Goals:

The story was different for people with big hairy audacious goals. They need to lock themselves into future deadlines and actions. Three examples:

  • Jess wanted to pressure test a workshop concept. This was a 3+ month goal. To lock herself in, within the first month she posted 3 eventbrites for potential customers to try out her service. This was a forcing function for her to create the marketing materials and cost structure.
  • Rick wanted to find a romantic partner. To lock himself in to devoting time, he immediately sent an email to friends asking for their help to be matched.
  • Kristen wanted to redesign two side websites she hadn’t been maintaining. To ensure it would happen, within a week she hired and pre-paid a professional designer for set timelines.

#3 No private struggles.

Our participation in weekly reporting wasn’t perfect. This is mainly a result of the group structure and norms (vs individual failures). The group can’t let people go anonymous. We didn’t have a stringent master publicly calling people out for missing goals, not posting. Without the oversight, it was easy for people to exaggerate progress or take it easy one week. This is easy to say and operationally, this is tough to execute. Babysitting others is actual work. This is a manager’s full time job. Next time, we may consider paying someone to keep us in check. For this attempt, the operational win was using boomerang to auto email progress reports.

#4 This is not forever. And that’s ok

Charles Duhigg, a habit expert, suggests that you should create habits as if they are forever, not for 3 months. He has good reason to say this — he wants people to set achievable goals vs overshoot and underdeliver. However, this is the exact opposite of what MANC proposes and what contributed to our success. It’s scary to think you have to cut back on sweets forever or have a lifetime stretching routine. This long term mindset is likely what prevents us from starting in the first place. Instead, we found the mindset of experimentation (this is just 3 months) helped motivate us to put in the effort and be less afraid of failure.

Second, we know that accountability tied to your reputation with friends is a form of extrinsic motivation. It’s not quite as extrinsic as monetary rewards or penalties, but it’s in the same ballpark. Dan Ariely, Duke behavioral economics expert and professor, calls this type of motivation ‘doing the right things for the wrong reasons’. The wrong reasons in this case are reputation risk or being locked into an action. The downside of extrinsic motivation like this is that it typically goes away when carrot goes away. This means that after the 3 months we may be back where we started. But maybe that’s ok. Jess launched her workshops. Kristen has two websites up. Dharmista worked out. Phil and Ellen have perfected their stretching routines. Joey now checks sugar content. Richard has written 1500 words.

Of course, one thing will definitely stick for good after this three months — our friendship.

Reference on workplace accountability systems: Private Paternalism, the Commitment Puzzle, and Model-Free Equilibrium https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/laibson/files/private_paternalism_2018_02_01_final.pdf