But, how do we go about cultivating strong systems?
Well, you’ll be thrilled to know it’s a little bit hard, briefly time-consuming, and there’s absolutely no shortcut. How’s that for motivation!
Fact is, some things are super important and thus need to be given a little more time and effort.
Developing strong systems is one of those things.
Back To the Drawing Board
There’s a question I ask nearly every client at some point in our relationship. “How would you do this if you were starting from scratch?”
It usually requires more than just one question – hence the need for using 5 whys – but more often than not, they have a bunch of good ideas that have turned into habits that don’t actually support their end goals.
And that’s exhausting!
Sure, it’s a system. But, it’s not a strong one. And, certainly not a supportive or sustainable one.
When you’re struggling to get out from under a pile of habits and routines that don’t click together, it can feel like sustained frustration, overwhelming pressure, and a constant sense of needing to catch up just to keep one’s head above the water line.
There’s a good chance that one or more of those descriptors jumped right off the screen at you.
So how do you fix it? Simple.
You partner with your inner seven-year old and you start back at the beginning.
How Would You Build It…If It Wasn’t Already Built
When it’s time to rework a system that no longer supports you or build one from scratch, the first step is to strip it down to the very basics. Break it down to first principles thinking and get to the very core of why you do what you do.
Think about the system that’s faltering and ask yourself why it is that you do this thing in the first place. What is the goal of doing this routine?
Is it supposed to help you complete a task, fulfill a commitment, support your team, free up time in your schedule?
Then, bring on the seven-year old and ask yourself “why?”
Why does that task need to get done? Why is this commitment important? Why does my team need this? Why do I need this extra time?
Then, ask yourself “why” again. And, again. And, again. And, one more time!
Using Five ‘Whys’
The practice of using Five Whys is an excellent way to dip your toe into first principles thinking.
If you’re doing it right, it’s a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit aggravating, and ultimately, a whole lot fulfilling.
It’s not at all uncommon to engage in tasks, commitments, and habits by rote. We’ve been doing them for so long that we no longer consider the reasoning, if it’s the right set of steps, if the steps are in the right order, and if the routine still serves us.
Using the Five Whys helps you peel back the layers of have-tos, should-dos, and to-dos until you find the choose-to.
And, when you get there, you have one more question to ask yourself.
Do I still choose to do this?
Building Backwards On the Basics
If the answer is no, sunset the system and make room for something that serves you.
If the answer is yes, let’s get to work.
Fill in the blanks for this sentence: I choose to ___(your task/commitment/habit______ because ___(your ‘why’)_______________.
Once you can say that with confidence, you’re ready to reverse engineer your system so it’s strong, supportive, and sustainable.
For that, keep these three concepts top of mind.
Turning Your 5 Whys Into Action
Your system is only as strong as your why.
Write down your goal and your ‘why’ in a place where you can refer back to it often. If your goal is to better support your team, first determine ‘why’ that support is needed. Then, move on to the specific parts of the system that need to be cultivated (habits, routines).
Systems should always support the goal.
This includes both the goal itself, as well as each and every person involved in the process. If your goal is to better support your team in achieving quarterly reporting compliance, determine the steps that will help them meet specific targets.
Be inclusive and ask open-ended questions. If your first instinct is to require weekly meetings because it’s been done like that for as long as you can remember, ask how those meetings support the team in reaching their targets. Is this the best way to support them? Are there additional steps, alternatives, flexible options, etc. that work better than others? Are your check-ins timed for optimal support? Do some team members prefer one-to-one while others thrive on autonomy?
Find consensus on a series of steps that are “good enough” to get started. Release any notion of perfection and embrace a more iterative approach that includes objective assessment and willing adaptation.
Sustainable systems require feedback.
Before testing your new system, agree on the factors you intend to measure so you and others involved have a clear set of shared expectations. Test the new system for an agreed upon amount of time. Unless you have a complete disaster on your hands, give the new system some time to marinate before judging its effectiveness.
Take time to reflect on the process and evaluate what worked, what didn’t, and what needs a conversation. Work with your team to assess the process objectively and agree on a transparent process for feedback and adjustments. Be willing to hear different perspectives and make tweaks as needed.
Then, test it again. As the system gets stronger and more supportive, it’s implementation will become smoother and inch ever-closer to becoming second nature.
When you reach that point, set an appointment on your calendar to revisit the process in a few months and reflect again on how it’s going. Systems are living things that need care and feeding from time to time. Schedule the time, respect the importance of this part of the process. And, use it to keep improving.
Strong Building Blocks Support Strong Systems
Once you have your building blocks in place, your systems will begin to serve your larger goal and shift from something you’re working on to something that’s working for you.
There’s no shortcut, but taking on one system at a time and making these types of improvements can result in a welcome cascade of increased efficiency and vast reductions in overwhelm, procrastination, and burnout.
Choose a system. Use the 5 Whys to take it back to its roots. And, cultivate it in a way that helps you thrive.