This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is a weekly newsletter sent on Mondays. In every edition, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Published posts do not include all details shared via email to subscribers. Subscribe here.
Last week, I listened to an interview with author James Clear on Brené Brown's podcast, Dare to Lead. Their discussion brought me back to one of my favorite quotes from Clear's book, Atomic Habits:
“You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.”
While I've applied this thinking to my life, I'm continually learning how relevant it is within an organization.
Lately, I've been feeling the pressure of team members who notice challenges and want to set X, Y, and Z goals to overcome them. Goals like all project team members contributing to a project deliverable or a site launching without any bugs. It's funny — when I write these out, they seem simple, or dare I say, obvious. However, you could say the same about someone with a poor diet and no exercise routine who wants to lose weight. Just eat healthier and be more active, right?
The goals most people desire in life are not that complicated, but what holds them back is putting in the work and designing their lives to achieve results. In the book The Path of Least Resistance, author Robert Fritz describes how we can shape our lives to drive positive change like water flowing through a riverbed:
"You are like a river. You go through life taking the path of least resistance. ... If a riverbed remains unchanged, the water will continue to flow along the path it always has, since that is the most natural route for it to take. If the underlying structure of your life remain unchanged, the greatest tendency is for you to follow the same direction your life has always taken. ... Just as engineers can change the path of a river by changing the structure of the terrain so that the river flows where they want it to go, you can change the very basic structure of your life so that you can create the life you want."
The structure of our lives described here is no different than within an organization. Without a deliberate effort to change as an organization, we cannot expect the future to look any brighter. The path of least resistance will guide us toward a default future, whether or not we've shaped the path with or without intention.
"Unless people have done something radical to alter their course, the future they are living into is their default future. By default future we don't mean the inevitable future—such as aging and eventually dying—but rather what is going to happen in our experience, whether we give it much thought or not." (Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan, The Three Laws of Performance)
I used the word pressure earlier to describe how it can feel when the team comes to me with challenges and goals. While setting goals can help provide direction to where we want to go, what bothers me is that goals often feel more like a wish than a call to action. They also emphasize the finish line, setting unreal expectations of what accomplishing them will provide. "If only everyone were engaged and participating, projects would be successful!"
Setting these goals can weigh us down if we're not careful, creating immense pressure to achieve them. Rather than enjoy the process, we rely on force and willpower to make progress. That person who wants to lose weight tries cutting out sugar entirely and going to the gym for an hour every day. Their world flips upside down. Within a couple of days, they surrender. "I don't know how anyone lives this way."
Within an organization, a similar situation might look like a team member ordering others to fulfill a task or follow a process without their understanding and buy-in. Eventually, people can become disengaged and frustrated.
James Clear further explains the challenge of setting goals:
“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It’s about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately it’s your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.”
Even if we reach a goal through sheer willpower or force, any benefits are short-lived. Growth is not sustainable. Let's say the person does lose 25 lbs. by restricting themselves. When they hit that goal, they fall back into their previous lifestyle and soon find themselves where they started. This is what Clear describes when he writes "you don't rise to the level of our goals, you fall to the level of our systems." By systems, he's referring to the lifestyle we live and the habits we follow.
I like to think of an organization's lifestyle as its culture; its habits as its rituals. At Barrel, we've developed many rituals over the years that have shaped our culture into what it is today. Progress takes time, but to me, the best sort of change is when you get on the scale one day and see you lost 25 lbs. because of the positive changes you've made in your life. You feel happy, motivated, and energetic, not exhausted from trying to lose a pound every day.
In an organization, creating these rituals can be difficult. Individuals have a hard enough time changing their habits, let alone those of an entire team. On top of that, people who want to see instant results may not understand the value or grow impatient. Lately, I've been inspired by the Be Do Have framework when thinking about how to design new rituals and get the team on board.
My former executive coach, Seth Schmidt, introduced me to the Be Do Have framework at a stage of my career when I was feeling stressed by goals I had set for myself.
In learning about the framework, I noticed I had been operating with a Have Do Be mindset in different areas of my life. "When I have more time, I'll be able to do what I want to, and then I'll be happy, successful, etc." A couple examples that come to mind from that time are:
I was relying on external factors to move ahead. I tricked myself into thinking the road to success was by acquiring what I didn't have first.
Be Do Have is a powerful flip of these words. It inspires us to action. It asks us to decide who we need to be to achieve what we want.
Instead of chasing goals, I began thinking like the someone who achieved my desired results. I made choices from this new mindset, designing my life with habits that drove me toward my future vision.
When I think about developing a company culture and driving an organization in a new direction, I believe it all starts with a commitment to who we want to be and then asking: What values, behaviors, and rituals define an agency team like we aspire to become?
Earlier this year, we saw an opportunity to increase profitability and business activity within our accounts. Instead of repeatedly sharing our profitability goals with the Client Services team, we asked ourselves what behaviors a successful leadership team exhibits. We realized we had distanced ourselves too much from the day-to-day work and didn't have a pulse on our accounts. This mindset inspired us to develop a comprehensive system for weekly accounts reviews. As of today, we have seen tremendous growth and increased profitability across many of our accounts.
As I look ahead, my aim is to drive the team toward a future that keeps getting brighter. I'm conscious of keeping the team aligned on a vision, but careful not to get lost setting goals. The path I see to continuous growth starts with building upon our company culture, committing to the team we want to be, and developing rituals that keep us on track. It's not about one or two big goals but the journey of overcoming roadblocks together and getting better at every step. As always, I'm looking forward to the ride.
Where am I delaying progress by chasing what I think I need instead of who I need to be?