Confirming my prejudice about goals

My favourite blogger Sean Parrish (Farnam Street) recently posted an article on a book by Dilbert creator Scott Adam – How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

One item (#8 in a list of 10 takeaways) had particular resonance for me. It was about goals and goal setting, something that I have an emotional aversion to.

I remember one particular shudder of horror at the end of my Practitioner Certificate course in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). The tutor told a story (the basic message was NLP can help you achieve your life goals) about a young boy who was asked by a friend of his parents what he wanted to do when he grew up. The boy went to his room and drew up a huge list – over 100 things – he wanted to do. These included things like ‘become a doctor’, ‘learn to fly by age 25’ and so on. When the boy became a man he assiduously proceeded to achieve these goals. The story sent a shiver of horror down my spine. I couldn’t quite articulate my horror at the time, but there was something soul-less and even inhuman about this paragon. Why would an adult make themselves a slave to their child? How grim a prospect to pre-ordain your life regardless of the riches that serendipity and experience, choice, love and a million other things bring to our lives. I like diversions and distractions. I like being open and alive to opportunity. I like being surprised by life.

I liked the book Obliquity by John Kay. That’s about fuzzy goals. If you ever read War and Peace, pay attention to Tolstoy’s description of the methods of Kutuzov, Russia’s military commander who defeated Napoleon. His almost Taoist approach to dealing with La Grande Armee is an object lesson in ‘not doing’.

Scott Adam’s perspective on goals is one I’d never thought of in quite the way he expresses it. Here’s the full version of #8 from Sean’s article. If you want to read the whole thing, follow this link: http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2013/12/scott-adams-fail-at-everything/

I particularly appreciated Adam’s description of goal-oriented people – “Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst…” That, to me, brilliantly sums up the existential poverty of goal-seeking.

Systems trump goals.

This was fascinating. I’ve long thought that the balance of organizational thinking towards goals versus systems is in need of some reflection.

Adams has looked for examples of people who use systems versus those who use goals. In most cases, he’s discovered that people using systems do better and they are more innovative. “The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways,” he says in the WSJ.

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.

[O]ne should have a system instead of a goal. The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavours. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

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. …

Goal-oriented people mostly fail. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, you will constantly think that you are not at your goal until you reach it. If you fall short you’re still a failure. The only way to reach your goal is to lose the 20 pounds. It’s a state of near perpetual failure.

What you really want is a system that increases your odds of success. Even if that system only improves the odds a little it adds up over a long life. In organizations this means, for example, you should care more about the process by which you make decisions than analysis. It also means that you should focus on building a system that evolves, improves, and survives ego. Systems increase the odds of getting lucky. Or, if you want to put it another way, they reduce stupidity.

Goal seekers optimize whereas systems thinkers simplify.

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