Learning systems

Our ability to be continuous learners is directly proportional to the quality of learning systems we put in place in our lives.

Our learning is proportional to our ability to synthesize i) our own experiences, ii) conversations with people, and iii) information from books and courses. And, good learning systems enable us to do all 3 of these. For example, a learning system to improve on our communication skills might look something like this –

1. Get a great book on communication or sign up for an online course. Then, spend a minimum of 15 minutes every day reading the books / listening to the course – followed by 5 minutes of synthesis.

2. Practice every morning on our drive or walk.

3. Ask to spend time on a regular cadence with the best communicators we know discussing communication.

4. At the end of every work day,  write down a 1-2 line reflection on how we communicated before we shut our laptop. Do it again on the weekend and revisit our learning system for the week.

5. Teach what we are learning every week or every month to anyone who will listen or read. Our dog, baby, roommate, or mom, are all viable candidates for this. :-)

Each of these mini-systems, on their own, will accelerate our learning. But, piece them all together and learning compounds very quickly.

The beauty about taking the effort to set up a learning system is that we can replace communication with graphic design tomorrow. With a few tweaks, a good system will adapt to aiding our efforts to work on skills that involve other people too.

If we care about improving our ability to learn, consider building a system, we must.

Goals vs. systems and its implications on management

In his book – How to Fail at Almost Everything And Still Win Big – Dilbert creator Scott Adams asserts that ‘goals are for losers while systems are for winners.‘ In his words –

Losing ten pounds is a goal (that most people can’t maintain), whereas learning to eat right is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower.

The difference between the two, in his mind, is that goals are one-and-done things while systems are enduring and don’t focus on the short term.  So, stay away from goals and focus on systems is his advice.

I thought I’d deconstruct this today and analyze the goals and systems idea in further detail.

First, from a self management perspective, I think Scott is spot on. I think of goals vs. systems as a focus on results vs. a focus on process. Focusing on results means spending large portions of time outside our circle of influence as we don’t generally control outcomes. Additionally, it also means walking down the “judger” path. A focus on process is not just better because it is a happier path (it is that, too). It is better because our circle of influence grows in direct proportion to the amount of time we spend within it.

However, the difficulty with extreme points of view is that there are always exceptions (I think Scott took the extreme point of view just to make a point). And, there is an important exception to the systems/process path. Every once in a while, we need to check if our processes are leading to the outcomes/goals we have in mind. The inherent assumptions with systems is that we design systems that work. So, if we take – I will lose 10 pounds (goal) vs. I will lead an active life (system), it is vital that we check in every once a while to make sure our system is leading to the desired outcome of feeling healthier. In that sense, we need both goals and systems. And, consistent with Scott’s point of view, I think it is better we focus on systems.

When we apply the goals vs. systems idea to management, however, the implications are interesting. When it comes to dealing with others, I think that managing via systems is a bad idea. Managers who try to control their employees’ processes become annoying micro-managers. This is because the nature of systems is that they are personal. What works for the manager will likely not work for his colleague. And, that’s okay. As long as she’s getting her work done in a way that is consistent with the values and culture of the firm, the manager shouldn’t meddle.

So, in this case, it is vital that we, as managers and leaders, focus our energies on setting clear goals for those we manage/lead. And, just like in the self-management case, it is worth checking in with their systems/processes from time to time just to ensure they’re not doing something completely wrong. Trust, but verify.

So, if I had to abstract from all this analysis and arrive at the principle, it would be this – don’t think goals OR systems. Think goals AND systems and tailor based on context. When it comes to managing ourselves, it is best to focus on processes/systems instead of goals/results. And, when it comes to managing others, hold them to outcomes instead of processes. In both cases, don’t abandon the other. Check in with your goals from time-to-time to make sure your processes are taking you where you want to go and vice versa.

As a wise friend once told me when I was grappling with a “this or that” question -“Whenever I am faced with such a dilemma, I ask myself [very deeply] what it would take to replace OR with AND.”