System Thinking is the Holy Grail of Work (and life) Productivity
Success comes from failure. Every plane crash, every pandemic, every market crash. All tragic lessons to be learnt. We might not like it, it can be painful at best and inconceivably gut-wrenching at worst. But through failure, we learn. It might be the hard way. But then again we are bias in hindsight. We all can see the obvious once it’s been pointed out. Why wouldn’t you lock the cockpit door on an airplane, why wouldn’t you swob for MRSA before patient admission, why would you build a clean water source next to a cesspit. All so obvious now but all led to fatalities that taught us humbling lessons. Through failure we learn but more importantly, or so I think, we create systems that stop it happening next time. Systems and system thinking that lead to betterment.
Systems are the rules we abide by, procedures we follow and steps we take to make sure it never happens again. They are the checks at the airports, the screening at the hospital, the analysis of the stock market. They are all part of a system that keeps order. Systems that get results.
A system is a set of things working together. The railways system is a system. It is the interworking of trains, the structure of railway lines, the mechanisms on the tracks, the customer service, the notice boards. It’s all part of an overall system.
Our life is a system. Our current output is the totality of the system working.
Atul Gawande, wrote in his incredible book ‘Better’ the following: “as the day progressed, the weakness spread through the boy’s body. His breathing grew shallow and labored. He lay flat and motionless in his hospital cot. A doctor at the hospital, following standard procedure in cases of sudden childhood paralysis, phoned a surveillance medical officer with the World Health Organisation in Bangalore.” This one act. This one follow through of the procedure that was in black and white, led to the discovery of the first case of Polio in Southern India, where it was thought to be eradicated. That single action meant that the team whom were in charge of the Polio ‘mop-up’ (essentially a rapid vaccination programme in the surrounding areas to stop the mass spread of Polio) were in place and vaccinating children within 28 days of positive results.
The point here is, that in extremes, systems save lives. Systems work.
Systems and system thinking are secure and fail proof ways of getting things done. They are proven ways to solve the problem over and over and over. That’s why systems are the things you should be trying to master. Not goals. Systems. Not arbitrary targets that once fulfilled will mean you can stop. Systems.
Systems churn. They can churn product, they can churn ideas, they can churn systematic vaccination until a disease is eridacated. They will churn whatever you want them to.
Application to Our Lives
So with that in mind. With the prospect that we can probably cure Polio with systems. It is probably fair that we can work some magic in our own lives. Our systems are all around us. They are the culmination of our routines and habits.
Your morning routine + work out programme + work schedule = your systems.
But also, the your way of prepping for meetings, the way you schedule your emails, the way you write your emails. A system is perhaps most easily defined by ‘the way’ you do something.
Why they work
James Clear, who needs no introductions, writes extensively about systems and why they are better than goals. Goals are good for giving direction but they are fairly rubbish at getting the results. Much like planning a road-trip it’s obviously beneficial to circle all the places you want to go, other wise you’ll directionless. But it’s not beneficial to spend hours and hours planning whilst never getting in the car and actually going. You will never get there if all you do is plan where you want to go. The destination is the goal, the system is how you get there. With that analogy in mind, it’s easy to see why systems are the greater of the two. Why system thinking works.
The system allows you to get to your destination but importantly it’s the way you keep going further and further. It’s the way you’ll get there next time.
Systems are the doing. You don’t have to wait till you achieve something to be happy with where you are.
Systems are sustainable. Goals are a moment in time. They are your hopes right now, in context to where you are. Focus on the system and you’ll get exponential growth. Focus on the goal and you’ll get there and stop. A system is a continuum, a goal is a singular point.
Systems to think about
Goals definitely have their place. But systems, systems are the elite. There are many things we could think about in our lives that could benefit from applying some thought about the way we conduct them.
Email organisation — batching, automatic replies, rule setting, powerapps all may help save time and be more efficient.
Email usage — often emails are used as a way to inefficiently communicate, is there a better way to ask a question? Short text, quick phone call… do you even need to ask a question?
Morning routine — How we structure our morning can prove incredibly beneficial. The 20/20/20 might be a good start.
Time management — How we use our time is quite obviously a big one, some tips can be found. I’d wrote a recent article on that here.
If we get our systems right the sky is the limit. You won’t need to set ambitious goals because before long you will be write an article a day, reading a book a week, getting fitter than you have in a long time. Focus on the system and the success will come.