Design beats discipline

by | Dec 3, 2019

In my experience, those who win and lose in any form of competition mostly have the same goals, but the systems of achieving the desired outcomes vary, often significantly.

As James Clear of Atomic Habits fame would say:

“Goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.”

Similarly, many think they can discipline their way to success.

Discipline, like goals, is overrated. It is likely to help in the short term, but is unlikely to be a long-term solution. Motivation wanes for many reasons, human nature takes over, and momentum is lost.

As Dan Gregory would say, “Design beats discipline”.

Like Dan, I have found that individuals who are lauded for being highly disciplined, do not rely on a strong will, but instead, have designed a personal system of operation to support their desired outcome.

When I listen to leaders, most can articulate their personal and organisational ambitions with conviction and acuity, and understand the need for discipline in the pursuit of their goals. When pressed, however they do not have the same coherence in relation to ‘systems of operation’ to achieve their objectives.

It is for this reason, after many years in the game, I stopped thinking of AFL football as ‘team vs team’, but ‘system vs system’. Whenever and whoever we played, the goal was clear, both clubs were trying to win, but the thing that separated the winner from the loser was not the ambition, but which group had established the best system, mainly the result of continuous small improvements, supported by a well-executed game plan on the day itself.

It is fundamental that we match ambition with capability. With this in mind, there are two questions that sit at the heart of the designCEO leadership system of operation, which I first came across in Chris Tipler’s excellent strategy book Corpus RIOS a few years ago:

1. What does winning look like? – Ambition

2. What do we need to be good at? – Capability

Too high ambition, too low capability means over promising, a trust killer.

Ambition is just words, while capability is real. Efforts to fast-track capability are fraught, despite good intention and effort. This is because capability grows organically, building on its own learning, mostly failures, missteps supported by a process of reflection and realignment.

So how do we inform this process and create a ’system of operation’?

This is the system we teach at designCEO.

Start by thinking about the activities currently undertaken and list them out. Make the context clear. The focus can be the organisation, the team you operate in, or personally as it relates to your role. Then put each activity on a separate sticky note.

These are your “Current Activities”.

Now make a list of the activities you could (or perhaps) should be doing to grow, develop, or improve as it relates to performance, current and future. Again, put each activity on a separate sticky note.

These are your possible “Future Activities”.

In relation to each of your Current Activities, the next step is to ask yourself two questions:

  1. Is it important?
  2. Is it working?

We do this by mapping them out on a simple 2 x 2 matrix as per the framework below.

Next to the matrix, add the Future Activities sticky notes, with a to-do tick box next to it.

Good strategy is largely about making the best use of scarce resources. With this in mind, it is likely that you will have sticky notes in the left-hand quadrants, denoting the activity as not important. This is a waste of resource that might be deployed into more important Current Activities, or to make space for Future Activities.

Therefore, I suggest the focus of the process should be removing/reducing activities from this column before making any choices as to how this resource be best utilised in relation to important Current Activities (change or leverage) or consideration of Future Activities (activate).

There will always be trade-offs, competing interests and tension when it comes to allocating resources, but the reluctance to stop or re-align unimportant activities is often avoided because of the inherent conflict is likely to emerge, which only amplifies this tension.

Leadership requires and expects you to confront this tension and ambiguity, but again having the goal or discipline will not be enough. It is too hard and easily distracted.

You need a system.

This is not a one-off process. It is a ‘system of operation’, repeated regularly, forming a personal leadership habit to ensure that you have a basis of making informed decisions as a leader, confident that you can back it up, aligned to the ever evolving goals and ambitions, personally and organisationally.

Remember, to make change happen, you are in charge.

I always enjoy the opportunity to talk all things culture and high-performance, and the development of leaders to achieve it.

Here are three ways to start the ball rolling:

  • I teach and coach an integrated leadership performance system utilising sophisticated learning models and systems garnered from elite team sport, ideal for leaders who are committed learners, who understand the responsibility of leadership. To learn more, please arrange your FOC 30-minute leadership telephone consult to discuss your personal, team or organisational challenges or aspirations, please use this link.
  • Participate in our next one-day Leadership Masterclass which I personally facilitate. It is a sophisticated, intimate and practical leadership intensive for aspirational leaders, both current and emerging. To learn more, and to register, please use this link.
  • Sign up for the “More to the Game” weekly email, and receive a copy of my “What business can learn from football” White Paper. The emails are short leadership reflections, no more than a couple of minutes to read and we will always treat our communication with respect. Please use this link.

You can also contact me at and let me know how you think we can work together.

Cameron Schwab
CEO & Founder


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