Molly Crockett Wired Pre-Commit


Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them” – Albert Einstein

Molly Crocket has made a career out of understanding the brain and how to overcome its inherent failures as she examines in her Wired video “Neuroscience is about discovering our limits, then hacking to get around them” (thanks Joanna). One of my favourite strategies she describes is the tactic of “Pre-Commit” as a way to embrace the inevitable failures of “Will Power”. Pre-Commit is setting up systems where the systems drive you behaviour more than your own individual decisions. Like not buying cookies so that you will have to stop yourself from eating them.

This approach is very akin to Scott Adams’ advocacy of “Systems over Goals” evangelised in his recently published book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life”.

Scott Adams’ post “Goals vs. Systems” highlights another problem with the cult of the “Balanced Scorecard”…

  • My problem with goals is that they are limiting. Granted, if you focus on one particular goal, your odds of achieving it are better than if you have no goal. But you also miss out on opportunities that might have been far better than your goal. Systems, however, simply move you from a game with low odds to a game with better odds. With a system you are less likely to miss one opportunity because you were too focused on another. With a system, you are always scanning for any opportunity.”

With systems, a failure might fall short of the goal, but the system carries on. Because of this dynamic, Great Leaders would never use Scorecards. But they have no place for Managers either unless they focused on delineating “minimum standards” (the thresholds of downsides below which the operation cannot afford to fall). This one problem with Balanced Scorecards…they try to hybridise Leadership (goal setting for the upside) with Management (threshold setting) and in the end cater to neither.

Leaders can set “big, hairy, audacious” goals. But for their very audacity, the last thing one would do is monitor their achievement. These “goals” are often less “objectives”, than they are tangible illustrations of the picture of perfection vision. Managers can use scorecards. But not to manage goals. Rather to monitor downside tolerances. Of course, a particular brand of clueless executive deliberately tries to confuse goals with minimums standards (‘Spectacular success is the only option!’), but unfortunately this kind of talk is empty bravado and bluster from someone who know neither how to optimise upside nor how to minimise downside.

Robust Leader/Managers develop and deploy systems which pre-commit the organisation to positive and productive behaviour rather than waving the banner of goals and aspirations.