Exit the System – The First Step to Strategic Change

During one cold winter in Minnesota, I worked as a college intern for the mayor’s office in St. Paul. There are two things I still remember about the job. One, my twenty-year-old Toyota Corolla had a broken heater and so the commute from my apartment at the University of St. Thomas to downtown St. Paul felt like a prolonged, icy slap in the face.

The second thing I remember is how totally caught up in the political system everyone was at the mayor’s office – certainly the mayor, but also the assistants, wonks, and even the janitor. Politics at the mayor’s office — who’s doing what, who’s saying what, how the political winds are moving — was all encompassing.

For example, the state newspaper published an opinion piece about some mundane issue… I think it was the style of the new streetlights. If I hadn’t set foot in the mayor’s office, I would never have given this a moment’s thought. I’m sure the rest of the population didn’t care either. But in the mayor’s office, that article caused a flurry of activity, debate, and crisis management fit for a minor natural disaster. At least three, intense meetings were called to address the issue. I remember thinking, “What’s wrong with you all? Don’t you know that no one but you actually gives a shit?”

The same thing is true for any system – including your business, your family, and your life in general. When you’re standing inside the system, small things take on great significance. It’s only when you see them from outside the system that you can put them in the proper perspective. Some time ago, I ran a large affiliate marketing company. Looking back, I can easily see how caught up in that system I was. I lived and breathed affiliate marketing all the time. If some random affiliate in Hogeye, Indiana, wrote a critical review of my company on a 100-person affiliate blog, I would respond in full crisis mode, just like the mayor of St. Paul.

One of my favorite sayings is: “You can’t see the picture when you’re standing in it.” You first have to stand outside the system. If you’re going to respond to a “crisis” or attempt to change or improve the status quo, you’ll want to look at it with a fresh set of eyes and a bird’s eye view. If you try to change a system from within – therefore without seeing it as a comprehensive whole in an even larger context – you’ll simply perpetuate what’s already there.

If you want to change or improve your business, the number one thing you can do is get away from it from time to time. At least two to three times per year, go off site, change the setting, interact with different people, speak with the experts, and get a bigger perspective. In my days as a CEO, I learned that it is very powerful to collaborate with a trusted advisor who is independent of the system and can offer a fresh perspective. Ideally, this person will provide you with a solid framework and process for understanding your business and planning your strategy. The advisor’s role, however, is not to tell you what to do, but to create a space where you can determine the best course of action for yourself.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Man, I’d love to step outside and get a new perspective but I just don’t have the time” or “Yes, it makes perfect sense but my management team thinks off-sites are for wussies – they’ll never go along with it,” I encourage you to reconsider. You’re either working in the business or you’re working on the business. And to work on the business, it’s only after you’ve managed to exit the system and see how it’s really operating that you can find the best solutions to improve it.

As Einstein famously taught, you can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking you used when you created them. This means that you must first exit the system of thought that got you where you are in order to create a new system of thought towards where you want to go. So the next time you want to change something, exit first and get perspective, then dive back in. You’ll find it well worth the investment.

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About Lex Sisney

Lex Sisney is an expert at creating breakthroughs in individuals and organizations. He's grown from co-founder and CEO of the world's largest affiliate marketing company to follow his passion as CEO Coach to the world's next generation of expansion-stage companies.

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