Systems vs Caution

When (not if) we make mistakes that need to be avoided in the future we have two options; tell ourselves that next time we’ll be more careful, or build a better system which limit the chance of the mistake happening again.

Being careful might prevent us from making the mistake short term, but what happens when we become complacent again? What happens when enough time has passed for us to forget the consequences of the mistake, or when someone new comes along who hasn’t made the mistake before? Careful is important, but it isn’t enough.

This is why we build systems.

‘If it matters enough to be careful, it matters enough to build a better system.’

Seth Godin

Some systems are huge, others are tiny. Systems become more complicated when the cost of the mistake is high, or when the number of people who could make the mistake is large. You can build a system around any imaginable problem.

Have trouble getting out of bed when your alarm chimes?

Telling yourself you’re going to make sure not to do this on workdays and disabling your snooze option is being careful.

Putting your phone on the other side of the room before you go to bed is a small system.

Neither caution nor a system can guarantee that a mistake will be avoided. But systems are dynamic. Caution is not.

Let’s say setting your alarm on the other side of the room works for a while, but your morning zombie-brain adapts. You’ve discovered that if you go to the end of your bed and stretch far enough, you can turn the alarm off without even needing to get out of bed.

The system is failing. It needs to be adapted. So, you implement a new rule:

You’re not allowed to turn off your alarm until you’re dressed.

This one simple change to your routine implies that you’ll need to get out of bed, turn on a light, take off your pyjamas, and dress yourself before you’re allowed to turn off your alarm.

Couldn’t you still just turn the alarm off at any time and just go back to bed? Of course.

But if you were willing to put the effort into being careful, wouldn’t you also be willing to put in the effort to implement a system?

Systems take effort to implement, but once they’re in place they dramatically decrease your likelihood of making mistakes.

You can take a systems based approach to everything important to you.

Be careful, but be smart about it.

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