External vs. Internal Solutions

External vs. Internal Solutions

Steve Polo

Me:  “My life would be so much better if I moved to LA.”
My friend:  “Are you sure?  You know you have to take you with you, right?”

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

Back in May, our office participated in Parking Day, an international event in which the objective is to reduce traffic and its attendant challenges. Groups ‘take over’ urban parking spaces from cars and give them back to the people. You can see our process on our website under Solve for X.

Our Parking Day space was derived from our company mission – to help good companies work better – and consisted of a prompt that asked people to fill in the blank on the following:  “I could work better if…”

Our installation was a grid of wires where we asked people to write their response on a sheet of colored acetate and attach it to the wires.  (See photo above).  At the end of the day, we had a web of ideas, requests, and desires all focused on what people collectively thought would help them work better.

At OPX, our overall idea is that companies, and the people in them, would work better if we could integrate the three most important parts of the organization – people, tools, and place.  We tallied the parking day responses into these three buckets.

Seventy-two people participated. Forty of the answers were people issues, 16 were tools, and 28 were place issues. (The total is more than 72 because some of people’s answers fit in more than one category.)

After reviewing the responses, it occurred to me that there was a distinct difference between the answers that were external:  what did someone need to be provided by someone or something else, and those that were internal:  what did someone need to do for themselves or to themselves in order to work better.

Surprisingly (and maybe a little disappointingly), 80% of the responses were hoping for someone or something else to make their working lives better!  Only 20% said that they themselves needed to change to improve the situation.

This got me thinking about what challenges I have with working better.  Am I externally focused, or am I taking responsibility for my own progress?

Then I asked myself the question: Which category do I want to depend on to get the results I want?  I could model myself on the ones hoping for external salvation: i.e., if metro was faster; if I had a better boss; if I had free Starbucks; and my favorite: if I had better co-workers!  And then, how long will I have to wait before some of these other things happen to or for me?

Or, I could act like the ones who want to personally improve: i.e., if I refrained from social media during the day; if I could be more reflective and less reactive; if I didn’t procrastinate; if I communicated more clearly.

So I’m going to try to reframe some of these ‘externally dependent’ challenges and make them ‘internally focused,’ using the construct I started this letter with:

Me:       I could work better if I had better pay and more vacation.
You:     Why don’t you make a commitment to finding a job with those benefits?

Me:       I could work better work if I had more quality time with my family.
You:     What would it take for you to make a commitment to spending more quality time with your family?

Me:      I could work better if my higher-ups actually listened.
You:    Let’s think of some ways to get your higher-ups to listen.

OK, where am I going with this?  I’m suggesting that if you think about the ways that you could work better, what would they be?  Then I’m suggesting you write them down – and if you are looking for other people, or other things, or circumstances to solve your issues – try to refocus and see where you can take responsibility. Then make a commitment to solving them yourself.  That’s what I’ll be doing…

Working on working better!

Steve Polo

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