The Problem With Systems

More of the same

Last week I wrote a big-ass post about how creating systems can make your microbusiness rock. However, I failed to mention a few problems and limitations related to systems creation and documentation.

Systems creation isn’t new. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith talked about the division of labor, specialization, and creating an efficient system for the manufacturing of goods. By giving 20 workers in a pin factory one specific job, the factory owner could make more pins than 20 craftspeople creating pins from beginning to end.

But a microbusiness isn’t a pin factory. We don’t make pins. We make creative content and products. We turn ideas into something tangible. Plus, it’s hard to systematize and document curiosity and synthesis, keys to creativity.

You can document the overall workflow, as in the example of the songwriter, but there are so many other factors that influence the idea generation and execution.

Bethany Dirksen has a system for selling paintings and tracking income/expenses, but I doubt she needs to quantify the overall process that results in her bold, original work.  (Correct me if I’m wrong Bethany!)

Workflow? Sure. Document away. Overall creative process? Difficult bordering on futile.

This isn’t to say that creativity is only some mystical nymph-powered force. Creativity explodes when you’re already in the trenches, doing the work , going nose-to-nose with resistance, and gutting it with your bayonet.

The problem is laziness. What happens if you create a system, decide to slack off, and then let your system dictate not only how you work but what you work on?

You run the risk of getting stuck in a routine and just following a checklist.

Create system. Follow checklist. Repeat. Stop innovating. Die.

Here are some other problems worth mentioning:

  • Some things must be done by you the ‘technician,’ the craftsperson. The creator cannot (and should not) remove themselves from the created. Can a writer hire someone else to do their writing?  Unless you’re James Patterson, no.
  • Systems creation can lead you to focus only on your tactics, not on your strategy. You can document all the tasks in the world, but if your strategy is crap, your tactics will at best keep you on the treadmill of futility.
  • Systems and, especially the models in the E-Myth book, can emphasize quantity of output over quality .
  • Factory, production-based work that follows a rigid system will usually result in a race to the bottom that creates cookie-cutter products. We don’t need more of the same-same junk. Competing on price will just give you low-priced Wal-Mart crap.
  • Rigid adherence leads to stasis and death. Look at the record companies. They had excellent systems but refused to change them. Now they’re emaciated zombies hell bent on eating the brains of their former customers.
  • Franchises are lame. Sometimes they’re good for the franchisee, and many people find comfort in having the same freaking restaurant in every town.  On the intertubes, however, simply following someone else’s instructions without significant innovation or improvements will just give you what amounts to a franchise website.*

*Not saying you should wait until you have a “brilliant flash of insight” to start a site. That comes with effort, research, and courage. Lots of great sites and writers start out doing what are basically summaries of stuff they’ve read. I’m only saying that doing exactly what someone else is doing won’t work for you.

What systems creation isn’t

  • A one-sized fits all solution. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • A rigid set of guidelines. A system should be fluid, changing to the needs of the individual and the (micro)organization.
  • A magic solution that can fix all your problems. Those only exist in James Patterson stories.

Am I saying systems creation is a bad idea? Absolutely not. Creating and documenting some the core processes of your microbusiness will be instructive. This should lead to a better workflow, increased overall efficiency, and more time to work on creating amazing things.

Another systems creation example

Even simple jobs are worth documenting. Three months ago I documented the steps for a new WordPress + Thesis install and setup. This documentation included some simple design and formatting info. I had done Thesis setup a couple times before, and I could’ve followed the instructions from memory, but I had intended to sell the site and thought a user’s manual would be a nice selling point.

I haven’t sold the site yet, but my documentation efforts have paid off. Over the past week I’ve been building a Thesis + WordPress site for a client. Here are the benefits I experienced by documenting a simple process.

  • Even though I could’ve followed the guidelines in my head, having a checklist is much, much faster. We’re talking Honda Prius vs. Tesla Roadster faster.
  • Part of the package for my client includes documentation. Copy+ paste+ fill in the blanks baby!
  • If I used subcontractors (I don’t), I could simply hand this job off to them.
  • I saw a couple spots in my setup process that could be improved.
  • Most of the design/layout tweaks use the same hooks and custom functions. Combining them into one place saves me from having to search.

Over to you

Can you see any other problems with systems thinking?  If you’ve created systems for your microbusiness, have you run into any of these problems?

Photo credit: chainsawpanda

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Shanna Mann February 23, 2011, 6:45 pm

    All very good points, especially the using a checklist thing being faster than remembering. Now, instead of trying to describe why creating a system is a better use of my time, I will now use your checklist of improvements over the old system to make my arguments for me! Cut + paste, baby!

  • Emilie Wapnick February 24, 2011, 2:03 pm

    Another good one! The way I like to look at it is there are various components to making a microbusiness run smoothly. Some are creative and fun and the others are just maintenance and/or dull. The goal is to automate the dull stuff so you don’t have to think too hard about it and can focus on the creative activities. I’ve been thinking of ways I can automate my web design/blog set up and design services too. It’s a really good idea. Saves you time and makes the whole process way more fun.

    Great post Seth!

  • Angela Geise February 24, 2011, 6:15 pm

    I love it when both sides of a topic are thoroughly explored. You’re really providing a lot of info about this topic and it’s great. Someone can really start systems with a good understanding of what’s involved and what the drawbacks are after reading these posts. Fewer surprises. Thanks!

  • Tom March 1, 2011, 4:22 pm

    Seth, you’re totally right that it is hard to create a system that allows for creativity and moments of inspiration. My ‘system’ for documenting creative moments or ideas is to simply not forget them and write them down ASAP, and then riff off them afterwards. But it’s great to have the framework of a system to work within nonetheless, because when I feel myself slacking, the system kicks and gets me working again.

  • Anonymous March 2, 2011, 5:46 am

    You’ve got it down: capture the idea immediately then riff on it afterwards. Every day, great ideas go down the drain because, let’s face it, people are forgetful. And capture is a huge part of any creative entrepreneur’s system.

  • Anonymous March 2, 2011, 5:25 pm

    Thanks Lora. You’re right that systems aren’t all about quantity; by continually reviewing, revising, and improving them, you can ensure that your work is consistently high-quality.

    I’m interested in hearing more about how you would apply a systems approach to replacing yourself in your business, especially in a subjective area like design.

  • Anonymous March 2, 2011, 5:28 pm

    Glad you liked this post Emilie. I think a lot of people run into trouble with the maintenance/dull parts. I do; I try to rush through them and get on with the good stuff. But right now I’m documenting the dull parts and, even if I don’t automate them, at least give myself clear guidelines/checklists so I can burn through them a little faster.

  • Mark Powers March 6, 2011, 6:40 pm

    Oh, so true, Seth. I had been creating my own Thesis/WP documentation, and was just thinking about this last night. It’s valuable to create a system, but also super important to allow for creative flow. Thanks a ton for the great read!