Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

Book Review: Work The System

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“If it is true ‘a life’s mechanical functioning is a result of the systems that compose it,’ then getting what one wants in life lies in continuously improving those systems.” This is the heart of the book WORK THE SYSTEM: The Simple Mechanics of Working Less and Making More.

Work The SystemEarly in his career the author, Sam Carpenter, worked 100+ hour weeks at his telephone answering service company, was struggling to support his family (in multiple ways) and was on a potentially devastating downward spiral. At one point he and his two teenage sons lived in his work office because they could not afford another place to live. Then he reached a point where he did not know how he was going to make payroll and keep his business going.

He lay awake one night, nearly at the end of his rope, and two simple questions came to him: “What have I been doing wrong all these years?” and “Since the end is coming, what is there to lose if I abandon past assumptions and look at things from a completely different angle?” This is when it struck him that his company (Centratel) was nothing more than an assemblage of sequential systems. Through this experience Carpenter developed a set of processes and methods that drastically reduced the amount of time required at work and significantly increased his income.

When you stop and think about it, life is a system of systems. The body is comprised of many systems that work together. Automobiles, computers and other machines are composed of smaller sub-systems. Nature contains many systems working together, sometimes with powerful results. Work The System helps you see life through a different lens and see the possibilities in a new light:

You will see life for what it is, a collection of individual linear systems; then in this clarity, you will extract and perfect these systems one by one before re-inserting each back into your life. The huge and wonderful irony of these machinations is that peace and prosperity silently enter through the side door….”

After a significant introduction to the principles, Carpenter delves into specific processes and methods that help you apply the principles. He describes three key documents, the Work The System Documentation:

Strategic Objective: A one-page document that provides overall direction for your business and your personal life. “Caution: this is not a job for a committee. It’s a job for you, the leader.” This document gives direction and reduces churn, both individually and within an organization.
General Operating Principles: A two or three page document that provides guidelines for decision making. Carpenter’s (Centratel’s) document contains 30 principles that form the basis of the things they do every day. “These principles are what you believe, and they will crawl out of their hiding places unannounced.”
Working Procedures: A longer document; a specific collection of protocols that outline how the systems of your business or your job will operate. Carpenter cites the specific example of their check deposit process as one procedure. With this working procedure, Centratel drastically reduced the time it takes to process payments.

The book contains a well-though-out combination of quotes, perceptive side notes and end-of-chapter stories that weave the principles into clear, actionable steps. Carpenter drives home a philosophy he call “outside-and-slightly-elevated,” taking a step back and looking at looking at a problem (or opportunity) from a different perspective. This perspective helps you understand how to apply the principles to your own situation.

The book’s third section covers varied topics such as not becoming too pedantic, exercising quiet courage, increasing consistency and using the “prime time” of your day effectively. It is a complex book; not an easy read. You will need to spend more time reading and thinking on this one than the average business book. Some parts will challenge you to keep going. However, it is well worth the read overall. The time invested in improving (or working) your systems has the potential to change your life significantly.

My favorite quotes from the book: “Procrastination–the lack of quiet courage–will ruin your life if you let it” p191.


The Product Management Perspective: Product managers face an interesting challenge: they are (usually) responsible for the success of their products, yet the people they rely on to get their products successfully out the door do not (usually) report to them. This situation lends itself to planning and preparation. It probably does not make sense for the product manager to write the documents described here for his/her team. However, the principle herein will help every product manager improve his/her effectiveness.

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