Dilbert Claims Systems Trump Goals

No, this isn’t some new comic from Scott Adams about Dilbert interacting with Donald Trump – although I’m laughing about the possibilities.

Instead it’s a central tenet of Adams’ most recent book titled How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Adams relies on his trademark humor to describe “the strategies he has used to invite failure in, embrace it, then pick its pocket.” Here’s a sample: Goals are for losers while Systems are for winners.

How can that be? The conventional wisdom is nothing gets accomplished without goals. People need motivation; something to strive for.

Adams argues goals are something you achieve in the future but don’t provide any incentive or guidance once they are reached. On the other hand, systems describe activities you do on a regular basis without a specific deadline. In the WSJ, Adams provides some simple examples from everyday life:

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.

In other words, systems are more sustainable.

According to Adams, goal-oriented people are usually not successful. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, you are likely to be discouraged every time you get on the scale and haven’t reached your target weight. Performance management practitioners have long recognized this issue and recommend setting multiple targets. It’s more effective to try to lose 2 pounds per month for 10 months.

A different approach is to focus on a system of eating right, rather than losing weight. People who adopt systems feel good every time they use their system. This means they can succeed every day; even multiple times per day. This reinforces their own behavior, increasing the likelihood they stick with the system. Adams finds that people who use systems are more successful and more innovative than those who set goals.

There are plenty of conclusions for businesses. Rather than just relying on traditional management by objectives, organizations should create boundary conditions and interactive controls. We should focus more on the process of how decisions are made than the details of the analysis itself. And we want to build an organization that is more resilient than the people in it; it should be antifragile.

With all due respect to The Donald, Dilbert makes the case that systems trump goals.

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3 Responses to Dilbert Claims Systems Trump Goals

  1. spotmagicsolis March 15, 2016 at 2:19 pm #

    Holy crap! Scott is right again.

  2. Raman June 6, 2016 at 1:19 am #

    So, what is your take Jonathan :-D?? Interesting aspect, didn’t think of.
    I think it is more of a philosophical discussion. Bill says keep the goals higher than you think you can achieve, this will lead to reaching of a higher goal than one thinks he/she can achieve. I think this is very individualistic. We all get motivated by different things or people.
    Chinese saying “if you don’t stand for something, you fall for everything”. At the end it is all inside a person, what is considered success/failure or happiness/sadness.
    Just my opinion.


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