The downtime during the holidays is a time for binge watching, catching up with friends, drinking and eating more than usual, and for me, like many others, it’s a great time to catch up on reading. Prompted by a reference in someone’s blog, I picked up the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. For the planning/goal-setting/self-improvement/resolution-setting geek in me, this book was a holiday treat. Among my takeaways from the book was, “it’s all about systems.”
For example, every January hundreds of thousands of people set weight loss and exercise goals. And most of us (especially those of us who have been there), know what happens—for most people, these resolutions fade into oblivion by mid-February. Clear provides a new way to think about goals.
In the example of weight loss—weight is an indicator of other systems you’ve set up (or have not set up, as so often is the case) in your life. Among other things, weight can be an indicator of your eating and exercising habits. The systems that you set up to support the indicators that you want to see are what make the difference. It’s not necessarily about the goal, but about the systems we create to reach our desired state. This seems self-evident, but it’s not how we approach most goal setting situations.
Take, for example, a common goal of many nonprofit organizations—“to raise more dollars from individuals.” As good fundraisers know, a lot of fundraising success is about the systems that you’ve set up. Do you have an accurate donor database? Do you have systems to reach people to ask them for money? Are there systems in place to thank donors in a timely manner when they contribute? Are there simple ways to keep donors in the loop about your organization’s progress on its programs? And do you and others working on fundraising prioritize actions and behaviors that support raising more dollars from individuals? Your fundraising success is a lagging indicator of the systems and routines that your organization has built around fundraising.
Let’s take a more challenging example—strategic board governance. During strategic planning, many boards set goals related to board effectiveness. The details about the goals may vary, but the intent is the same—we want the leadership body of our organization to be more effective at what it is supposed to do (i.e., set the direction and determine the policies and stay out of management’s way in implementation of the day-to-day actions of the organization). Yet, organizations rarely set up systems to support this end. Sure, the board may implement better board member orientation or recruitment, but systems around meetings, agendas, or board behavioral expectations rarely change. If we want to see more effective boards, we need the systems—like board meetings– that provide the time and space for board work to change. Board effectiveness is a lagging indicator of the systems and routines developed to support the board’s activities.
Without supporting systems, it’s easy to miss meeting our goals and reaching our objectives. So, as you move into personal or organizational goal setting during this year, consider the systems that are in place to support the results you want to see. If the systems aren’t there—develop them. For me, this has been a refreshing and beneficial change in my goal setting approach.