It’s been a year now since we all went over the cliff together and entered the space of the pandemic. We have arguably been held in liminal space ever since, individually and collectively. That’s an entirely unusual, difficult, complicated and unprecedented place to be. Liminality usually defines the transitional space for individuals or small groups. It is rare that an entire society is plunged into the void, without clarity, guidance or a clear way out. A year on, we’re still in a liminal space. Here’s what that means, and what it could mean for what comes next.
Doing our best work often means pushing past what is familiar, safe and comfortable. This is particularly true when the work we are doing is complex and uncertain, where we face many options but no obvious choices, and when each decision introduces new complexities and consequences. There is no clear plan, no well-defined path and few easy answers. Leaving our comfort zone and building good solutions to challenging problems means we still need some means of navigating and course correcting. The form that takes requires answering some different and difficult but absolutely essential questions.
I have always taught that a central principle of managing projects is that you should have a clear picture of what “done” and “done well” look like. That’s easy to define when something is straightforward and clear. It becomes much more complicated when we start straying into the realm of creativity, and of doing work that is complex, messy and uncertain. When we have many choices and options of how we might proceed, and those choices lead exponentially to other implications and impacts, it can be hard to know how to proceed, where to look or where the finish line is. The good news is that there are some thing to look for that can help.
We all have to get started some time. The longer that we orbit a large, messy, complex problem, the more complicated and difficult it can appear. Options and expectations weave together into a giant, tangled bundle of questions and choices that can seem impossible to unravel. Finding a way in, or even an end to grab on to, can seem an insurmountable challenge. The good news is that there are strategies that work to navigate the complicated and get to something that looks clearer.. It is all about knowing where to start.
If best practices aren’t actually best, then why do they exist? What is the point of process, of practices, of standards even, if they don’t reliably produce good results? While some standards have value, and there are simple situations where there might be a best way of doing things, when it comes to the strategic work that we take on, we are far removed from those statements being true. Even when we want there to be a way of working, one that is consistent and repeatable, the reality we find ourselves in is usually very different. It helps to know what to draw on instead if we are going to be successful.
“Best practices” is s term that we love to bandy about. Even I will find myself relying on it at times, although I try very hard to avoid uttering its syllables. Best practices are frequently espoused as the essential and optimal means of attaining results. Generally, they are absolutely nothing of the sort. Nonetheless, many use the term as a proactive defense to justify their preferred way of working, or an after-the-fact rationalization the actions they have taken. This is my attempt to explain as clearly as I can why this is a dangerous and inappropriate idea.