Systems Have Advantages Over Plans

I remember listening to someone explain the importance of systems vs plans, and she said something that stuck with me: “In your car, would you rather have a braking system, or a braking plan?”

What’s true for automobiles is true for the world beyond: the differences and advantages of systems over plans are profound.

Don’t get me wrong: plans have value. I’m an advocate of plans. But a plan is really just an aspiration, a hope, an intention which you may or may not be able to follow, and which may or not actually work when you do.

A system, on the other hand, is an interlocking set of incentives, guidelines, mechanisms, steps, or whatever, that works as a whole to perform its function without the need for a lot of aspiration, hope, or intention. You may have to start it. You may have to operate it. You may have to adjust it as you go. But when you do, you can feel confident you’re most likely going to get the designed result.

This is why it’s far better to go beyond mere planning to maximize your likelihood of completing the task, project, or goal at hand by setting up a system.

Here’s how to do it:

Design the Mechanisms

Obviously, an automobile braking system is far different from a marketing system, which is far different from a personal fitness system, and on and on, ad infinitum.

So don’t expect me to define the proper mechanisms for whatever system you’re trying to construct. You’ll have to do that yourself. But to do it, you can try answering such questions as:

  • What are we trying to accomplish – not just the ultimate result, but also the intermediate steps to get there?
  • What are some effective, feasible methods to accomplish each of these steps?
  • Which of all these methods should we select?
  • What are the operational components of the methods we’ve selected?
  • What are the appropriate sequences of actions and/or steps needed to implement these methods?

For example, a marketing system requires, among other things, a method to reach out and attract likely prospects, at least one offer regarding your products or services, and a suitable method for prospects to indicate their interest in or acceptance of your offer.

A personal fitness system requires, among other things, that we eat and drink appropriate quantities of healthful nutrients, that we move our bodies enough to build and maintain good muscle strength and tone, and that we routinely monitor for and protect ourselves against the vast majority of potential illness and injuries.

No matter what kind of a system we’re building, we want to identify specific mechanisms and/or actions we can put together in specific arrangements to produce the result we’re looking for.

Establish the Incentives

Traditionally, self-discipline and willpower have been considered the best drivers to push people into doing the work necessary to accomplish their desired tasks, projects, and goal. But now we’re talking about a system rather than a plan, which allows us to replace self-discipline and willpower with mechanisms and incentives that produce the desired results.

Incentives – making our new system’s mechanisms easy and desirable to use – turn out to be highly effective because they grease the skids and pull you rather than push you toward what you’re trying to do.

For example, your personal fitness system may include spinning classes. You may force yourself to go three times a week using self-discipline and willpower. But you’re more likely to go – and keep going – if you establish incentives, such as attending with a friend and bringing along a latte.

A related technique to improve your system is reducing the amount of incentive needed for compliance. For example, if getting to your spinning class requires only an easy walk through a lovely park, you need far less incentive than if attendance requires a 30-minute drive through traffic.

Set Forth the Guidelines

Guidelines for using a system are a form of operating instructions. They tell you when to employ the system, describe how it works, and recommend some effective ways to use the system to produce the results you want.

For example, guidelines for an automobile braking system may tell you to start pressing the brake pedal lightly at first, then harder – as needed – to slow your speed so it matches that of the surrounding traffic. They may also recommend service intervals to keep the braking system in good working order.

Guidelines for a marketing system may specify the characteristics of likely prospects, how to reach out and attract them, and how to respond when they indicate interest.

Guidelines for a personal fitness system may offer suggestions on what to eat, how often to exercise, what exercises to perform, and what health regimens to practice.

Among the important advantages of systems is their ability to produce the desired results routinely, without demanding new, special, creative, or heroic efforts to earn a win.  

You’ll have to work out for yourself the specific mechanisms, incentives, and guidelines for whatever systems you decide to put in place. But once you do, you’ll quickly benefit in both your work and your life because the systems will help you complete your tasks, projects, and goals more quickly, more easily, and more certainly than you would by relying only on plans.

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