For Real Change, Systems Trump Goals

It seems apposite at this time of year, when so many people set themselves challenging resolutions for the new year, to be talking about goals. Companies like goals, particularly in the context of change programmes. Yet when it comes to supporting long-term, impactful shifts, focusing on systemic change is far more powerful than isolated targets. Change is a process, not an event.

In the book, I quote from (Dilbert creator) Scott Adams’ book How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big’:

“If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.”

A goal sets a tangible target that we can achieve at some point in the future. It feels compelling because we can envisage something palpable that will be a marker to the change we’ve undertaken. Yet the real difference comes from developing a system – small changes in behaviour, a way of continually looking for better options or creating the right habits to build toward that success. Systems, says Adams, are ultimately more powerful than goals:

“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success 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. 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.”

The advantage of systemic change is that it builds energy and momentum as it goes, and so is far less likely to fail.

Khe Hy talks about this here in the context of personal goals, and has an interesting take on supporting systemic change:

‘The basic idea was that with a system that was actionable, yet not overwhelming, I could generate a lot of “small wins” on a daily basis—providing momentum for much bigger projects.’

To do this, he breaks big ambitious goals down into four sections:

  • The Essence Statement:- the core beliefs or vision that guide that your life
  • The Success Statement:- your personal definition of success
  • Intentions:- An intermediate plan for supporting change
  • Micro-Habits:- the tiny changes in behaviour that cumulatively drive much bigger change

This is a great way of thinking about life and personal achievements, but there are strong parallels too with organisational change. In any transformation programme we need a compelling vision and a clear definition of what good looks like. But we also need strategy that is adaptive to rapidly shifting contexts and a focus on the behaviours and every day actions that will add up to drive real, fundamental difference. As Nigel Bogle once said, ‘Big is a collection of smalls’.

Many change programmes confuse vision with goals. A goal is not a vision and a target is not a strategy. We absolutely need to set a compelling direction in which to focus yet when it comes to supporting real change, systems trump goals.

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Neil Perkin

Author Neil Perkin

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