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The Power Of A Simple System

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about Jerry Seinfeld’s simple system for getting work done. It involves putting a cross on the calendar each day he writes a joke and not placing a mark when he doesn’t. As Jerry tells it, once you get a row or two of crosses, you get to a point where you don’t want any blank spots on the calendar. So you keep writing jokes every day so you can keep your run of marks going.

This is how we can keep ourselves accountable.

I recently used this method to achieve my own goal. I wanted to go 100 days alcohol-free. On day one I started and put the number 1 in my calendar and then I put a box on where day 100 was. There was that box calling me to write 100 in it. I couldn’t let that box down. I had to do it.

And I did.

How can you use your calendar to keep you accountable?

What Else Is Happening?

We’ve all got them. That one person or that group of people that we find difficult. [1]

I’ve written before about how people have a “right thing” and how taking others’ perspectives can help you understand motives.

What if we were to take it one step further?

Maintaining a curious mindset (check the voice in your head for tone) try to understand what is going on around the person with whom you are interacting.

Here are some questions that might help you do that (I am going to use a fictitious protagonist named Morgan here): [2]

  • Who is Morgan’s boss or manager? What pressures are they under that Morgan might be picking up on? How could that be informing Morgan’s behaviour or thinking?
  • What policies, procedures or legislation is Morgan using to inform his decision making? What effect might that be having on him?
  • Has Morgan dealt with a similar experience to the one we are discussing today? What happened last time? How is that informing Morgan’s thinking and behaviour?
  • What other influences are there on Morgan at the moment that could be impacting our conversation?

These questions are not exhaustive, but they do help you see some of the other forces of the system at play. As you take a step back and view different aspects of the system, test out your questions.

I encourage you to take a broader view of your difficult conversations, understand what else might be happening, and how that could be playing out in your interactions.

[1] Lately, I have moved away from the concept of “difficult people” to “people I find difficult.  It puts the onus back on me to develop my empathy and understand others better.

[2] You don’t have to ask these questions out loud. Asking the question about your “Morgan” primes you to see events and behaviours to help you answer the questions. Of course, nothing is stopping you from asking the questions out loud either.

You Can’t Influence The Organisation

In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about how we, as human beings, have invented social constructs so that we can create order and certainty for ourselves.  We have called these social constructs ‘companies’ and ‘organisations’.  

The problem is that these ‘companies’ and ‘organisations’ don’t exist. Not physically. You can’t touch them. 

You can touch the buildings in which the people of those ‘companies’ work. Moreover, you can interact with the people that work for those ‘organisations’.

Physically, however, these ‘companies’ and ‘organisations’ only exist as inventions of our collective imagination.

This becomes a problem when people say things like:

  • “The organisation made a decision”; or
  • “I need to influence the company to …”.

No. The organisation did not make a decision. Someone who works for the organisation made a decision. That decision was made, by that person (or group of people), based on their interpretation of policy, culture and their relationship with the ‘organisation’. 

Also, because the company doesn’t make decisions, you cannot influence the company to do so.  Because individuals, or groups of individuals, make decisions, however, you can influence them.

So, if you’re having trouble influencing the organisation or company at the moment, give some thought to who the specific decision-makers are. They are the people you need to influence.

How you do that is a whole other story.

You can’t do everything.

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Herbert Simon

There are a lot of highly successful people out there that have achieved great things in their fields of endeavour. For each one, there is someone else who wants to interview and deconstruct them in order to unearth the key ingredients of success. 

As a result, there is a wealth of information available about how to be successful.

The problem is, if you were to do everything every successful person did, you would never get anything done.

Having been a connoisseur of many of these interviews and articles over the last few years, here are a few of the key themes you need to follow to be successful:

  • Wake early, so you’re up before your competitors.
  • Go to the gym as soon as you wake up.
  • Go for a walk at lunchtime.
  • Exercise before bed. (Or don’t exercise before bed)
  • Meditate twice a day for at least ten min/20 min/1 hour each time.
  • Write in your journal.
  • Write your blog.
  • Publish your podcast.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast.
  • Fast until lunchtime.
  • Fast for 2 or 4 days a week.
  • Get eight hours sleep a night.
  • Adopt biphasic sleep.
  • Get all your meetings done in the morning.
  • Spend the morning alone in your creative space.
  • Etc, etc, etc.
  • (Insert advice of your choice here.)

The point is, there is a lot of good information out there about the tactics that certain individuals use to be successful. What those people did was found techniques that worked specifically for them.

And you can do the same.

Listen and read widely to gain ideas that might work for you. Then try them. See how they go. If they don’t work, discard them and try something else. Keep going until you find something that works for you, then adopt it. Check in every now and then to make sure it still works and if it does, great. If not, change your approach.

What works for one person may not work for another.

What makes some successful, may not do the same for you.

What Does The System Reward?

For those who watched Insiders on Sunday, 14 Jul 19, you may have seen a brief discussion on Australian federal politicians’ Electoral Allowance.  This is an allowance of between $32k and $46k for sitting members of parliament to spend in their electorate as a discretionary fund.  There are a couple of key features of this fund, as highlighted in a Sydney Morning Herald report on 3 July 2019:

  • The allowance is paid directly into the bank accounts of the sitting members;
  • The sitting member is not required to declare how the fund is spent;
  • At the end of the financial year, any unused funds may be retained by the sitting member as additional taxable income;
  • In 2017, the two major parties blocked a move by one of the minor parties that would have required politicians concerned to prove how the money was spent.

The SMH article highlights concerns by some that this money is being misused.

I make no comment on whether the reports in the SMH are accurate and I want to outline there is no political bias here. I want to use the case-study above to talk about systems.

I suspect that when the electoral allowance was originally instituted it was done so with good intentions.  It was designed to allow money to be spent on areas in the electorate where a need was seen but where existing policy did not meet that need.

Culture, however, is built by what the system rewards, recognises or rejects.  In this case, there is a potential personal financial reward to the politicians concerned for not spending the money as it was intended; on the electorate.  The system has also rejected the need for accountability around how this money is spent. This means the system is potentially set up to build a culture where corruption is rewarded or, if not present, there is a perception that it is.

Other examples where the system creates second or third-order effects on the culture are:

  • When people are rewarded for higher sales figures over their colleagues a culture of completion may develop;
  • In a call centre, if the KPI is quick resolution times for callers, then there is an incentive to get customers off the phone quickly rather than a focus on resolving the problem properly;
  • A focus on people being at their desks for defined working hours, rather than focusing on getting the job done, may lead to demotivated employees;
  • Assigning funding to schools based on test performances may encourage teachers to the test rather than the curriculum.

What is your system rewarding, recognising or rejecting?