Your system is more important than your outcome.
What makes some people more successful at achieving their goals than others? How come some organizations are barely scraping by, releasing mediocre products, while others continue achieving great results? I was mulling over these questions for the last year. Then it came to me that there is one trait successful people and organization have in common: they focus on process rather than outcome.
When you are creating a new solution, you follow a process that spans from the identification of a problem to the release of a solution in the end. When circumstances change, like a novel trend among your company’s user base, your current product might not be a great product-market fit anymore. However, you can use your product creation process to spin up a new product and release it. A product itself cannot change once it was released and is like a snapshot in time. Your process to create these products, however, is what actually makes you adaptive to changing environments.
Your production system will be able to create a new product that achieves a better product-market fit, like an development process can release an update to existing software. In the end, the system or process that creates is more important than the creation itself. Bruce Mau says, “When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we've already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.” This means, as long as we set up the proper processes, even in changing and uncertain circumstances, we can be sure we create the right outcomes at the end. Thus, the system or process is superior to the outcome they create.
In our professional lives we strive to improve our process, be it the code quality, the design system, or the product discovery methods. In highly functional digital teams we run regular retrospectives to look back and improve our teamwork, we analyze and act on data, we identify and eliminate roadblocks. How come we are not applying the same rigor to ourselves?
If we put so much effort into setting up the right systems at work, shouldn't we take even more care when we deal with the system that sets up the system?
What is the super-system?
What is the system that ultimately sets up the system? It is you. You are the creator of the process that, in the end, creates outcomes. Put another way - your outcomes are daily practices which create other outcomes. For example, you may regularly read the latest articles and go to meetups about your profession. Then at work you apply your insights to create a better workflow that will make the next iteration of the product better.
Does this make you a product or a system? Are you a snapshot in time, never changing, or do you constantly adapt to changes in the environment? If your answer is yes to the latter question, then we can safely presume that you are a system. You are constantly producing approaches that are solving problems, every single day. In that case you are a super-system that creates other systems in both your private and professional life, which in turn solve problems for your family or business. You are the embodiment of a super-system that puts you and your created systems forward.
The importance of the super-system
If we can agree that the process or system is superior to the outcome, then the super-system must be more important than the system that it creates to produce outcomes. Simply put - you are the most important part in this interplay and should treat yourself that way. A better super-system can create better approaches which create better outcomes.
At the same time, people and also organizations seem to put their produced systems before themselves, like trying to write the perfect line of code in an otherwise flawed product, or creating a great product in a dumpster fire of a company.
How can you expect to perform expertly when you are not taking care of yourself first?
People get up in the morning, gulp down something to eat, trudge to their workspace, where they get stressed by the sheer amount of work. They put all their energy trying not to drown in work, making a good impression, hoping for a promotion. Then they return home, too exhausted to do anything else. They heat up ready-made meals in the microwave, watch some Netflix and fall asleep. And repeat.
If you are caught in this daily grind, the results are constant exhaustion, deteriorating health, and a loss of focus in the workplace. You are acting like the shoemaker, trying your best to make a great shoe while you are ignorant of the sorry state of your own personal environment that won’t let you create something other than ordinary. Similar to the woodcutter who, when confronted by his boss about when he last sharpened his axe, cries out, “Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been too busy cutting down trees”
If you feel bad and your performance is deteriorating, not only will your worsening condition affect your own well being, but also your team and your product as well. For example, if you do not take care of your physical and mental health, you are likely becoming sick more often, missing work, thus putting additional strain on your team members, who then also will be impacted. This might lead to delayed product releases, which can hurt the company’s bottom line and might even lead to lay-offs.
Build the best super-system
If we want to make sure we are building the best systems and the best products, we need to start at the source: ourselves, the super-system. We need to appreciate that we are a creative machine that works best when well tended to and will break down due to overuse and lack of maintenance.
Identify the sub-routines in your own life. Ask yourself which ones are adding value to you and help you feel fulfilled? Remove behaviors that are holding you back. Then learn new habits that will make your process more resilient.
Create a life and routine around you that lets you be the most effective system.
Do sports, eat healthily, expose yourself to new ideas. New studies show that doing sports and moving around helps your cognitive performance and creativity.
“Engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions," says Dr. McGinnis.
Also, eat food that does not make you tired but keeps your spirit up and your brain powered. For example, Eva Selhub MD writes: “Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel. Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells.”
Like the food you eat, the media you consume is like a diet for your brain. The news on TV will make you perpetually scared off the outside world. The never ending waves of meaningless notifications will steal your attention. Advertising will make you feel inadequate about yourself. Different types of media can have differing effects on you. Make sure you are treating your media diet like your nutritional diet and you can become more knowledgeable, interesting, inspired, and motivated.
Grow the super system and the other systems will benefit.
Once you have your own system running smoothly, there is little that will throw you off-course. You will feel better about yourself and new opportunities will open up to you, if you keep improving yourself. Furthermore, the beauty of network effects is that your improved super-system even will have a positive impact on the other super-systems in your social network.
Bear in mind that your life is a marathon and not a sprint. Think about what behaviors and circumstances will let you keep going the longest. If you do it right, you will be able to cover a lot more ground than the people who just blindly sprinted to the five mile marker without realizing there are 21 more miles to go.
“Put yourself first. Putting yourself first doesn't mean you don't care about others. It means you're smart enough to know you can't help others if you don't help yourself first.” — Unknown Author
To sum up, make sure you prioritize the super-system first. What is true for the individual can also be applied to your business and organization. Employees in the highly competitive tech industry are showered with additional perks ranging from free lunches to company retreats in the mountains. Companies in the tech industry like Google understood that the most important asset are their people. In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz urges us to “Take care of the people, the products, and the profits— in that order.
When we in Novoda are brought in to help a new organisation in their digital development, we always start with analyzing the processes and systems in place and work hard to get these in order and running smoothly instead of focusing on short-term deliverables for them.
All in all, take care of yourself, put your house in order and then you will be of more value to your team and employer, and have a more fulfilling life. You are not selfish to put yourself first.
You are the super system with the power to transform yourself and people around you. Treat yourself like it. It is in the best interest of everyone.