Prospect Development, Continued: Goals vs. Systems

In my last post, I wrote about the rationales behind the changing name of the field in which I work, from prospect research to prospect development.  In my post, I wasn’t trying to belittle the value that prospect research offers, has offered, or can offer; instead, I was explaining that the changing name is about positioning research and allied fields in the context of the development process, and explaining that these days, an increasing number of organizations are recognizing that the role of research departments can be optimized by making sure that research is fully integrated with many other functions, including data analytics and relationship management.

Focusing just on the terminology of “prospect research” and “prospect development,” though may be the wrong approach to appreciating the nature of the repositioning.  A more useful explanation of the different strategies comes from Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert.  In March of this  year, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the DRIVE/ 2015 conference in Seattle, where Adams was one of the featured speakers.  His speech was based around themes from his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.

His speech entertained us with stories of his various failures in life, but it also served as an occasion for him to advance his unconventional advice.  People giving advice typically say things like “you need passion” and “you need goals,” but in his book and in his speech, Adams dismisses both of those as key elements of success.  About goals, for instance, he writes:

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers.  That’s literally true most of the time.  For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal–if you reach it at all–feeling as if you were short of your goal.  In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.  That feeling wears on you.  In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable.  It might even drive you out of the game.  (Adams, 32)

Instead of goals, he recommends systems, and he explains the difference this way: “let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future.  A system is something that you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.  If you do something every day, it’s a system” (Adams, 33).

In his speech, he illustrated the difference by talking about some of his experiences in high school.  He said that in high school, he was very goal-oriented, and one of his goals at the time was finding a girlfriend.  He would decide on a girl who he was interested in, he would spend a lot of time thinking about her and learning what he could about her, and when he finally got the nerve to ask her out, one of three things would happen.  She would say: 1). “I don’t like you,” or 2). “I have a boyfriend,” or 3). “I don’t like you and I have a boyfriend.”

He contrasted his experience with that of his friend Manuel.  Manuel had a system for finding a girlfriend.  He would go to places where there were lots of girls, he would meet quite a few of them, he would ask many of them out, and most of the time they said no, but some of the time they agreed.  In this respect, Manuel had much more success in finding a girlfriend than Scott Adams because Manuel had a system that increased his odds of success, whereas Scott Adams was just fixated on his goal.

That anecdote applies perfectly to the way many development offices operate, as well.  Although most development offices say they are working towards goals, some are fixated on those goals in a way that can hinder their success, whereas other offices are more interested in implementing good and workable systems–and a multi-faceted and well-integrated prospect development operation is a key part of a great system.

Part of the beauty of the advice about goals vs. systems is that it can be applied to various components of any kind of work.  We could set goals for our work and feel frustrated when we don’t meet them, or we can devise systems for getting things done and feel successful for all we are able to accomplish every time we apply those systems.

How might the distinction between systems vs. goals help you to be more successful in your job?  How might it benefit the organization for which you work?  I’d welcome your thoughts and comments below.



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