How to Grow Systems That Work

Notice I said “grow”. Not “build”.

Often when people think of systems they think of sleek, highly-efficient processes that ought to be easily constructed to exacting specifications.

If you do that, this is what you’ll get: all form, no function.

Systems that work are an arduous process of starting with something functional and employing the principles of kaizen to improve them.

And despite what “productivity gurus” and “efficiency experts” would have you believe, perfect systems do not grow wild in nature. They’re not grazing quietly, like wild asses, waiting to be harnessed to the plow.

They have to be grown, mindfully, over a long period of time. Like the chair below, which took ten years to grow into that shape. Ten years of mindful grooming and pruning.

So don’t expect creating systems to be easy. They don’t just land in your lap.

But then again, they’re not hard, either. They just take awhile, and that’s what requires discipline.

What are you trying to “construct” that it might be better to “grow?”


24 thoughts on “How to Grow Systems That Work”

  1. I LOLed when I read “And despite what ‘productivity gurus’ and ‘efficiency experts’ would have you believe, perfect systems do not grow wild in nature. They’re not grazing quietly, like wild asses, waiting to be harnessed to the plow.” I know it wasn’t intended to be “ha-ha” funny Shanna, but that was a zinger.
    You know what I need right now? A more efficient podcasting episode creation system. There’s nothing I enjoy doing more in my business than cranking out a new podcast. But between researching the topic/my interviewee, writing up an outline, thinking up great questions to ask or a good script to read, coordinating the interview, setting up my environment, recording, editing (the recording and transcript), getting the MP3 ready for publishing, writing the show notes, and more, it’s just ripe for a better system. If I’m going to move to publish a new episode of Smart and Simple Matters more than once every other week, this system has GOT to get under control.
    I’ll think about cutting down the number of steps, shortening existing steps, and just generally growing a better system. What I do is definitely not cookie cutter and can’t be constructed with the common tools that other people use for their podcasting workflow. Damn me and my ultra-specific needs!

    1. @joeyjoejoe I know! There’s something about having to have things your own way that totally screws up these cookie-cutter solutions!
      Glad you liked it the wild asses joke. If I remember my Aesop’s fables correctly, the joke is actually that wild asses were incredibly dangerous and ornery creatures. 😛

    2. @joeyjoejoe Hey, Joel ~
      Where does this come from: “If I’m going to…publish a new episode of Smart and Simple Matters more than once every other week”?
      Is that an expectation of your people, your heart or “just the way things *oughta be*”?

      1. @Karen J Publishing an episode of Smart and Simple Matters more than once every other week is my personal desire. Fortunately (or unfortunately), nobody has sent me an email saying, “Create episodes of SASM more often or I’m walking!”
        It’s so fun and rewarding that I want to do it more. But I’m the only one putting pressure on me to make it happen.

        1. @joeyjoejoe Tha’s cool. “Owning” any pressure you feel is a GoodThing. Are there any parts of the process that you’d be willing (and able) to “out-source”?

  2. Short and sweet! And true! Though you ruined my secret dream of starting a systems farm…
    Realizing it’s ok to start with imperfect was a big thing for me. I tend to be all about getting things right from the start. But, I’m finding there’s freedom and (oddly) confidence to be found in trying something and then caring for it in such a way that you shape it into something even better. If that makes sense.
    I’m definitely in “grow” phase with a lot of what I’m doing right now. And I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of the “build” mentality left…but I’ll have to find it as I see it 🙂

    1. @remadebyhand It can be quite hard to go through the “ugh, this still isn’t RIGHT” process a bunch of times. I mean, you started the system to help you– if it’s going to be a pain in the ass, then what good is it? But in all things, you’ve got to walk before you can crawl.

      1. @Shanna Mann Yeah…it can be disheartening when you think you’ve found the right tweak only to find there’s more still to be done! But at the same time, even the barest bones of a system can be so helpful that it’s usually less “ugh” for me and more “well, at least I have something to improve!”

  3. When I glanced down through the article, I saw the picture of the chair and wondered if someone had Photoshopped the image. That’s amazing discipline to stick to an idea like that, and it’s encouraging to know that the systems I’m struggling with don’t have to have a quick fix. It’s okay to struggle through those processes to find ways that actually work.

  4. I, like Joel, laughed out loud when I read about the wild asses.  While wild asses are hysterical, growing systems are not (to me, at least!).  I never wanted to take something and use it as is.  When handed a lesson plan from another teacher or colleague, I would politely thank them and then rewrite the entire lesson – my way.  Now I am a little older and perhaps wiser, so I like to read and consider what others say and try and tweak my current systems.  I am more protective of my off time, so I am rather through reinventing the wheel in many cases.  I am not by nature a patient person, and growing is ever so slow sometimes!

    1. @tammyrenzi @joeyjoejoe “But – but – but – I want to do it MY WAY!” seems to be a fairly common thread, around here. Me, too.
      Although, I’m noticing myself *not* re-inventing quite-so-many wheels, these days.
      I think all your accumulated “systems” and “sovereignty” talk is finally bearing fruit, Shanna!
      Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
      … and Happy Winter Holidays of Your Choice!

    2. @tammyrenzi That’s why it’s good to have systems in place to remind you to come back and check on your changes. No need to sit and watch it grow. Set your calendar, come back in a week. 🙂

    1. @Karen J I had known about those tree chairs for a while– since researching tree spirits as a kid writing a novel with dryads :). The pooktre is one of the best I’ve seen– most of them seem to be more for decoration.
      The other chair, I just looked up “high design chairs”. All that stuff is hideous. 😀

  5. I love these short but powerful posts! Systems are tricky because everyone knows they need good ones but don’t understand how to put them into place. It’s a good thing to remember that it takes discipline and time to make it happen.

  6. Yes, @ethanwaldman short and powerful! I kept reading into material below the post thinking I had missed something and of course wanting more. And great point about finding systems in nature. Entropy rules out there, folks! 10 years of laboring for that chair was worth it for that guy. He has quality now and something no one else has. I finally like my technical routine (for guitar) after 28 years of tinkering. It has enough flexibility mixed with rigor to be enjoyable for me. It was well worth the trouble.

  7. Mmmm… yeah. I think it’s helpful to try other’s systems if you’re introspective and analytical about it and not just expecting it to come in and solve all your problems, but ultimately the system(s) that will work best for anyone are the ones that they have made their own. And furthermore, considering that we theoretically are growing, as are our lives and businesses, the systems we need next year won’t be the same as the ones we need today…. easier to grow your own than keep inventing new ones every time something changes. 🙂

  8. Growing versus constructing is a great way of looking at it. I admit, I did the constructing thing over and over, and I’d want it to be built quick too, like in a day 🙂  Of course, that’s crazy and doesn’t work, and I actually enjoy the process of growth now.

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