Management Musings

The System Is the Goal Because the Goal Is in the System

The literature on setting goals is replete with talk about the importance of visualizing and then working toward a benchmark that an individual, group, or institution sets for itself. The goals for the project, the month, the quarter, the year, the strategic plan, and so on become the centerpiece for all action, and the extent to which one hits or misses this mark defines “success.” Albert Einstein went so far as tying happiness not to our relations or material possessions, but to the milestones we establish for ourselves: “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.” Thought leaders on the subject contend that success is only achievable if desired outcomes are first clearly identified. And because goals generally require a sustainable level of motivation and discipline if they are to be reached, desire for the actual ends must be scrutinized before embarking on this journey.

Should achieving a goal, however, be an end in itself, or should the manager’s focus also be on the means? After all, there are scores of examples where goals are used to justify unethical behavior or—in the worst of cases—even criminal actions. An argument could be made that when individuals become too fixated on the ends and a particular goal becomes a part of their personal identity, it can diminish their ability to objectively evaluate what they are seeking to achieve. In these instances, while the goal provides motivation, it can inhibit the manager from recalibrating in the face of unintended consequences. The individual’s ability to assess appropriate levels of risk can vanish, which can prove particularly devastating in crucial matters, but at the very least it precludes any sort of learning because everything becomes about meeting the objective. If there is any truth to Yogi Berra’s assertion, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else,” how important is the “someplace” (goal) in relation to the journey (system) in getting there? Can a properly devised system empower managers to develop personally and professionally where goals manifest themselves by virtue of this process? And if such a system exists, what are the structural elements?


“Five, four, three, two, one!” The small gathering of people in Toni’s living room erupted and shouted in unison, “Happy New Year!”

As she made her way around to me, I kissed Toni on both cheeks and wished her a happy New Year, gave her a hug, and whispered in her ear, “Thank you.”

“Happy New Year—and don’t thank me. I expect you to help clean this mess after the last guest leaves,” she joked.

“Thank you for everything this past year and what I’m sure will be the necessary counsel that I will seek in the year ahead.”

She put her soft palm up against the side of my face and stated, “I know what you meant,” gave me another hug, saying, “and you are most welcome.”

“I’m happy to stay and help too.”

“Ha—I know that too,” she replied.

About an hour or so after the Times Square ball dropped marking an admittedly arbitrary new beginning, friends and family began thanking Toni for her hospitality and began leaving. “Everything was great Toni and the food, as always, was unmatched,” her last guest mentioned as she made her way through the kitchen.

“Thank you. Same place, same time next year. Mark your calendar,” Toni replied.

“RSVP me as a yes,” she said walking out the door.

“Make that at least two guests,” I stated inviting myself again next year.

“Done. In the meantime, you can help me clear the table so we can finish what’s left of my New Year’s tea. I’ll put the folding chairs and tables away in the morning.” On the last evening of every year Toni traditionally makes an herbal blend that is infused with mango, pineapple, and ginger. There is always a lot of nervous anticipation that surrounds the holiday and so this particular tea, she reasons, brings a joyful serenity to balance the occasion as one chapter closes and another begins. She was pouring me a cup when I asked, “So, what’s your New Year’s resolution?” Without waiting for a response, I volunteered, “I’m resolving to get more exercise and reduce my carb intake. And hopefully, when we’re drinking this tea next year, I will have achieved a couple of professional milestones I’ve set for myself. We’ll see how it goes.”

“That sounds admirable, and I’d certainly like to learn more about your aims for the upcoming year. Or have we already discussed what you have in mind?”

“We have, so no surprises. How about you?” I probed again.

“Umm. Not sure, but I never resolve to do anything at the start of the year.”

“So, no goals?” I asked.

“None in particular,” she replied. “To be candid, I don’t overly concern myself with goals. I focus more on how my system is working for me and allow the goals to work themselves out based on the series of processes I’ve established in my life.”

“That’s an interesting perspective, Toni. Does this system of yours involve a way to manage your habits?”

“Very good—that’s a key part of it but it also includes developing practices to enable your growth in the various realms of life. I have daily, weekly, and monthly processes that I’ve incorporated into my personal and professional life to make sure I’m devoting the necessary attention to the things I value.”

I poured myself another cup of the tea asking, “Your exercise regimen and the care you give your garden would be part of this process I imagine.”

“Correct, but that’s just a couple of parts. The hours that are specifically dedicated to exercise, gardening, meditation, socialization, vacationing, hobbies, finances, and of course my career projects would all be included in this general system. I’ve found that if I have a good system in place, the associated goals become more of an afterthought. And if I’m missing a mark by a wide margin or if I’m disappointed with the direction I’m taking, then I’ll look to make changes to the system.”

“Interesting,” I contemplated.

“Of course, none of this is static. As life’s circumstances change, so should the system. I didn’t adhere to the same routine when I was at different points in my career or family life. So whatever approach is adopted it should be an adaptive one.”

“And I bet this also created a healthy balance for you.”

“You’d win that wager. One part of your system should not come at the expense of the other. You wouldn’t want your financial wealth, for instance, to come at the expense of health or peace of mind. If your life were a company, you’d want to make certain that your time and effort were distributed equitably. Because as you know, a neglected part of an organization can easily bankrupt it.”

“Ha—that’s a good point,” I agreed.

Toni reflected further, “Some of the most accomplished people I’ve had the benefit of becoming acquainted with all had a system that they tailored for the things most important to them. Whenever they were celebrated in public for having accomplished some goal, I always took note that the goal originated in some private system that they spent hundreds (sometimes thousands) of hours working.”

“Unique to them,” I concluded.

“Correct—whatever worked and motivated them. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult because it requires discipline—and a great deal of it.”

“Discipline to adhere to a system of one’s own creation?” I asked.

“Yes, because there’s a monotony to it that requires a distinct level of self-control. Absent that, you don’t have a system.”

“What would you call that?” I inquired.

“Intermittent activity that sometimes results in a short-term benefit.”

“If you’re lucky,” I added.

“There’s luck in everything, but that’s another good point—desired ends without a system generally requires an added dose of serendipity. The most salient point, however, is that goals are superficial whereas systems are more substantive. A system provides me with the structure together with the processes that allow me to slowly, but deliberately, become a better person this year than I was last year.”

“Running your own race,” I concluded.

“Exactly. It allows me to gauge how my fiercest competitor is progressing,” she stated rocking her thumb back and forth toward her chest.

“So, you do make a New Year’s resolution,” I concluded with a smile.

Toni smiled back and knowing what I meant said, “I guess I do. It’s the same one every year—to maintain and tweak my system.”


In his book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, James Clear discusses the dichotomy of goals and systems. He notes that individual results (his in particular) have less to do with goal setting and more to do with the systems employed. If you are a court manager, for instance, your goal might be to reduce backlog by 20 percent before the end of the fiscal year, but the system you employ includes the training and development of judges and staff in overseeing the docket, the reports that are generated and routinely shared, the periodic meetings involving internal and external stakeholders who impact the pace of litigation, etc. Clear argues that if one were to ignore the goal and simply focus on the system, the results would likely still be realized and without the drawbacks that come with being fixated on the end. Goals, he asserted, “are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.” 

There are generally two problems when more attention is devoted to thinking about the goal as opposed to developing a system. First, goals are rigid and exist in a world that is constantly evolving. A properly devised system, instead, allows one to navigate the complexities of life and adapt to those changes so that one can continue to progress without it being viewed as an all-or-nothing achievement. Related to this initial point, the second issue with an overreliance on goals is that it delays happiness until the milestone is reached (if it is attained). And that state of contentment is fleeting because another goal is inevitably set soon thereafter. Under this scheme, one is living as a failure most of the time. A system gives one permission to take more joy in the journey and allows the destination to be more of a natural outcome of the approach.

Devising a system requires that the manager contemplate what she is seeking to achieve and, more importantly, why she would like to accomplish it. The tasks and necessary steps required to attain the end are determined and then incorporated into one’s routine as small-scale shifts in activity. Over the long term, these patterns become more significant, embedded habits. Progress is periodically assessed and, when necessary, adjustments to the approach are made. The behavior prompted through these systems become lifestyle changes that ultimately lead to desired results notwithstanding if the destination exists as it was initially imagined.

Consider that perhaps the system, however it is structured, should be centered on simply learning so that the goal is contemporaneously the means and the end. Confucius counsels, “Learn as if you were not reaching your goal and as though you were scared of missing it.” Toni would suggest that ambition built around a value system is most important because at its core it provides the framework to achieve one’s goals and enables a kind of balance that does not compromise any facet of life. The art and practice of living in accordance with one’s values therefore is the goal. And what is in such a system that is a perpetual building process? Turns out—everything.

And those are just some of my musings on management.


Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at