One of the things we talk about an awful lot in my At The Kitchen Table With Havi & Selma course is systems.

Systems in business. Or in life in general.

And the more I teach about them, the more I realize how very problematic some of mine are.

Which is fine, mostly. I mean, one of the things I’m trying to convey when I talk about systems is that hey, the fact that they are always changing is actually a good thing.

Change — within limits — is something you want to have in your systems. It means you’re growing.

Plus, you know, life is flow… and all that stuff.

Okay, so things change. But ow!

It seems to me as though most challenges that tend to come up in these situations have two sources.

Maybe the system is flawed. There’s a spot where things get stuck, jammed, or fall through and get lost. Or a great system is already in place, but we’re just not using it. Which is the flaw.

Either way, there’s a hole in the system.

Concrete examples, anyone?

Three situations where systems fall down (and then get up again).

Scenario 1: the baby-bathwater thing.

A bunch of the people I work with are copywriters, designers, or coaches. They know about the importance of things like having a client-intake process.

Not to mention contracts, procedures, and stuff like that.

One of my students recently took on a rush job as a favor to a friend. She didn’t really want the job, but — for a variety of reasons — she felt pressure to take it.

Things went weird. There was some serious miscommunication. And in the end, she was unhappy and the client was unhappy and it was generally miserable. Yuck.

So we started brainstorming things she might do in the future to avoid repeating the situation. We were trying to come up with solutions both “in the hard” (the concrete steps) and “in the soft” (mental and emotional shifts).

And here’s what was interesting.

All the ideas we came up with “in the hard”? She was already doing these things, every single one.

She already had a really clear client contract that she was happy with. She already had a system for determining whether or not a potential client was one of her Right People.

Both of these things got lost in the shuffle though as soon as the “Ack! Emergency rush job!” button was pushed. Which is completely understandable — but also really uncomfortable for everyone involved.

A good system. With a hole.

Scenario 2: the misguided assumption thing.

So of course, because it’s apparently not enough for me to learn from my clients’ lessons, I just went through a similar thing myself.

I used to have a really complex system for new clients. This included — among other things — a signed agreement in which we committed to how we were going to communicate with each other. Like, clearly. And kindly.

You know what I didn’t appreciate at the time? How it totally set the tone that working with me is different. That we are doing work together that’s so important and life-altering that it deserves the full attention of our hearts.

One of the things we committed to was this:

“I understand that in the course of working together and working on my patterns, this may tap some deep emotional places in me. If I am ever feeling angry or otherwise upset with you, I agree to tell you as soon as possible.

I commit to having an open, honest conversation so we can clear it up in a healthy, compassionate, non-blaming way and both come out of this experience with a little more clarity and on good terms with each other.

Cheesy? Maybe. But whatever, people know I’m a big tree hugger before they hire me.

Anyway, I recently stopped working with clients on a long-term basis (a temporary experiment) and started doing only single sessions. It seemed kind of over-the-top to bring up this whole complicated preparation ritual for just one meeting.

If it was someone I didn’t know at all, then yeah. Out came the whole agreement. But if it was someone I knew and trusted …. I’d skip it.

This worked well enough until I worked with a client who — as it turned out — had a deep and serious pattern of misreading information, jumping to conclusions, feeling wounded, stewing quietly and then lashing out.

Without the structure and support of our commitment to communication — without that positive frame — an unhappy situation was the inevitable result.

Hole in the system. My system My responsibility.


Scenario 3: the “not allowing for stuff going wrong” thing.

I posted yesterday about my nine years without sugar or caffeine.

One of the things that’s easiest to forget when you make that kind of big, crazy lifestyle change is how you need to be prepared (or at least know what your options are) for situations that are outside of your control.

For example, eating out? Completely problematic.

If you’re going to be on an airplane, at a baseball game, or going to someone’s house for Thanksgiving, you’re going to be hungry. And there’s probably going to be nothing you can eat.

Not having a plan for situations like this… hole in the system.

I’ve also discovered that no matter how clear I am about what I’m not able to eat, there will always be some people who don’t believe me.

Even after I’ve done the whole “Seriously, no sugar also means no honey, no agave, no sweeteners… right, also no brown sugar… uh-huh” routine, some people are still convinced that you won’t be able to taste “just a little” sugar.

It’s not about the taste. When your body hasn’t had to process sugar for close to a decade, it can’t handle those little experiments.

So I have a system. I’m vocal about explaining what happens when I get sugared. We eat mostly at home. I pack things to take on a plane. And we avoid Thanksgiving like the plague.

But the problem is never the system. The problem is the situations that the system doesn’t cover… or the times when the system gets kicked to the curb because I feel awkward or uncomfortable about it.

So occasionally I get zapped.

I end up high as a kite. Talking a mile a minute, rapping my fist on the table, laughing hysterically, bursting into tears and having terrifying heart palpitations. The high is too high, and the low that follows is agonizing and lasts way too long.

Hole in the system.

Here’s the point.

Over and over again I find that — almost always — we already know what we need. We know what’s missing.

We’re just not doing it.

Sometimes we even know what we’re not doing and when we’re not doing it.

It keeps coming back to this:

I know that I need the systems in my business and in the rest of my life to be flexible enough that they can absorb change as it happens.

And at the same time, I need the different elements within each system to be sturdy and firm enough to hold and support me.

I need to take the time to remember what has worked for me in the past and what hasn’t. To take a close look at where the holes are and what they need from me.

To experiment. To be hopeful. Even when a system has dramatically failed to do the thing I wanted it to do, to remember what it’s like to be curious and playful instead of resigned and beaten down.

To trust myself and my instincts a little more. To trust the systems that are already in place enough to use them — not just when I feel the need for them, but as a habit.

I’m trying to think of my systems as the good guys. Because I’m pretty sure they’re there to help me and support me. We’re not exactly friends yet, but I like to think that we’re getting there.

The Fluent Self