Game, Set and Match: Using Setpoints to Change Your Worklife

Neale Cousland/

Here in Australia, we’ve not long seen the end of the Australian tennis open, with champion outcomes for some of the best (and I think nicest) players in the world: Ashy Barty and Rafa Nadal. Neither rest while they’re at deuce. They’re always looking for the next game, set and ultimately, match point. While these two have very different styles of play, they share a ruthlessly consistent pursuit of mastery.

That pursuit takes us to a concept that we can leverage as we seek improvement in our various professional ‘games’, and it too is called a setpoint.


There are various definitions and sources of setpoint theory. The most common are found in medicine (especially around obesity and weight control) and psychology. However, the setpoint theory that interests me most comes from the work of Ross Ashby, an English psychiatrist, cybernetics pioneer and systems theorist. Cybernetics is the study of regulatory and purposive systems of which Ashby, evidenced in his book Introduction to Cybernetics (1956, Chapman & Hall) was a master.

In cybernetics, a setpoint is the desired or target value for an essential system variable. When a variable departs from its setpoint the system registers an error. Negative feedback brings the variable back under control. Think of a thermostat on any form of heating. The temperature you set is exactly that: the setpoint. If the room temperature drops or rises, the thermostat feeds back to the heat source, which adjusts the room temperature back to your desired setpoint.

What Matters to You?

My mentors, Matt Church and Peter Cook, use setpoints as a metaphor for the default values you have for things that matter to you: how much you want to work, how much time do you want for your family, how much money is enough, where do you want to live, what weight are you happy at, how much exercise is enough?

To move a behavioural set point, you must change habits. Based, on Atomic Habits by James Clear, changing habits means introducing new habits, chaining habits in new combinations, breaking existing habit chains or changing existing habits. In other words, challenging your set points – the status quo – takes some work. If you already have a successful business or practice, moving the set-points that you think produce success will likely take a couple of years.

Accelerating Wider Personal Growth: Winning Multiple Setpoints

My work in mentoring and strategy facilitation is heavily influenced by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur’s Business Model Generation (2010, Wiley) and its derivative by Tim Clarke, Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, Business Model You (2012, Wiley). The latter is a terrific base for self-development, and I recommend it you. But, for me it’s the book’s central idea, The Personal Business Model, that, when combined with the idea of setpoints, become an ever more powerful tool in accelerating personal growth. The Personal Business Model Canvas is a derivative work from and is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The Personal Business Model canvas helps you define who you help, how you help, how they know you or how you deliver, the roles and relationships you have with your customers, what you get (rewards), who you are, what you do, who helps you and what you give (costs).

As with the business model canvas, to improve your personal business, you look at what you can change in the various personal performance building blocks. What can you create, improve, reduce or stop? This is where setpoints come in.

In each of the blocks ask what are you settling for? Is it good enough? Can you create a new building block setpoint or raise an old one? Are you too comfortable (is your setpoint too low)? Are you uncomfortable (is your setpoint too low)?

Championship Point

This is cybernetics in practice. Your personal business model represents a purposive system: your purposive system and everything is interconnected. Changing a setpoint here will affect a setpoint there. That’s crucial because accelerating personal growth usually is not just about changing one thing but several that work together.

Let’s return to our tennis champions and recall what they said about their path to victory. What they didn’t say was “it was all me and I’m super talented and fantastic.” Essentially, what they said was “it takes a village to build a champion.” Their “village” is their system and in the building blocks that comprise these champions, the setpoints are metaphorically and literally under constant review by the champions themselves and their support crew. Which levers should we push and pull, by how much and when?

And, from one of the greats:

“Champions keep playing until they get it right.” - Billie Jean King

Professor Clive Smallman PhD is an Educator, Author and Mentor. He is Vice-President (Academic), International Institute for MBA Studies (a higher education online start-up), a professional non-executive director and higher education executive consultant. He has mentored and taught executives from some of the world’s largest companies (e.g., Fujitsu, Shell, Ford, Coca Cola) and the smallest. He taught strategy on the Cambridge University Judge Business School MBA.

Clive has written six books, multiple book chapters, journal articles and conference papers, speaking at many professional and academic conferences worldwide over his nearly 40-year career.

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