Unfinishedness, by degrees
Give me principles by which I can navigate, said Tony the Fish.
Not rules and rails.
Then I can navigate.
We were talking about jobs, organisations, projects. We were talking about life.
And we all need principles by which to navigate.
Because humans comprehend backwards but live forwards (Kierkegaard, sadly, not my words) and whatever you learned in all your years will never be enough to make your choices fool-proof. Especially when you need to make choices often and your learning is always incomplete, as are the situations in which you make choices.
Incomplete and unfinished.
Since, in life and business, we mostly live in degrees of unfinishedness and that is uncomfortable and confusing and impossible to tie to an inevitable happy ending.
Unfinishedness, says Casey Cep, like love and loss is a matter of degrees.
And the hardest thing to navigate is not uncertainty, it is unfinishedness. Because the middle is messy and things rarely work to plan. So if you are in the middle of a programme of work, it is most definitely unfinished, and the world shifts on its axis – new CEO, COVID, budget cuts, a new regulatory programme that now has everyone’s attention. Whatever it is, you are not finished and the stars you were navigating by (your sponsor and budget and strategy deck in which you had your very own bullet point) are no longer shining bright.
What principles can you navigate by?
As an organisation
The only question that matters for an organisation when dealing with unfinishedness is the one question FIs are terrible at answering.
It is the one question that needs to be answered before anything starts. Any meaningful programme of work. Especially if it comes with complexity, high commitment of resources (humans as well as material, not to mention time).
Why are we doing this? What are we trying to achieve/fix/transform and is it worth it?
Because the answer to that question is your north star during the protracted periods of unfinishedness. Or would be, if you had it.
It is what keeps the organisation focused despite what else is going on.
It keeps resources committed despite what else they could be spent on.
It keeps the team striving despite the hard days.
And it helps you know if you are approaching the end of unfinishedness, as you near the goal. Not the end of the programme of work. But the successful outcome. Because, you got it, the thing you do may need to change to affect the thing you are striving for.
And if the thing you are striving for changes, then that’s hard and disappointing, of course it is, but it is also essential some times, to look back, comprehend and course-correct as you live forwards.
As an organisation, you may not always have but you most definitely always need a why.
As a team
Now for all of us working in/for/with large banks, this is the stuff of dreams.
The organisation tends to be great at “why not”.
Less so at “why”.
So things don’t start because we have a vision and conviction. They start because there were not reasons compelling enough to not start them at any given moment in time. That doesn’t mean they won’t be killed for no reason other than a reason to do so appeared later on in the story.
And if you know that the body corporate doesn’t have a north star, they comprehend backwards incompletely and live forwards in exactly the same way they have always done, what is your principle to navigate by then?
What is your question at the team level?
And yes you guessed right, it is what?
What are we doing, and what are we learning (backwards) and what are we changing (forwards) and what are we demonstrating to the organisation to give them comfort that the work is happening, progress is made, unfinishedness diminishing by degrees.
Even if the “why” is not in your control, the “what” is and it matters.
Because you can’t stop the organisation from killing the thing, getting cold feet, losing steam. But you can control what you demonstrate to the organisation in terms of what your team is made of. What your team is capable of. What you can do next. And you can also control what you build and learn. And how you become a little bit better, by degrees, at working out the why and staying the course through the various stages of unfinishedness. So when it’s your turn to sit at the helm of a ship, you will know all about learning backwards and managing forwards through unfinishedness. You will know enough about “what”, to start with “why”. Not because Simon Sinek told you to. But because you lived through the consequences of working for people who didn’t, one too many times.
You saw good work go to waste.
But even worse, you saw what it did to good people. To their morale and sense of purpose. To their feeling of being valued. Seen. Appreciated. And that, unlike unfinishedness, doesn’t come in degrees. It’s binary.
As a person
Unless you are at the “why” levels of power, you will have your own trajectory of unfinishedness through the stages of pain and disappointment. Through the steps taken and not taken and how they affect you, your career, how you see the world.
The first time is confusing, disorienting. It makes no sense to stop a piece of work that is succeeding, doing what it was meant to, working towards the final stages of unfinishedness. The second time hurts as much but doesn’t surprise the same way. Until you come to expect rather than fear it. Until you know that you are racing against the windows of time that may shift the organisation’s attention away from the “what” you and your team have been striving towards. Until you operate on the assumption that we will do the best we can and the most we can in the time we are given. And even if this work doesn’t survive, the organisation will have learned something. About itself. About the art of the possible. About our team. About us.
Is it enough? No.
But it is not nothing.
Change is slow.
Progress is non linear.
And while you work and strive and hope, against hope, that this time will be different. That the organisation will hold fast, that the work will matter, that the reasons why we do things will be thought of before we start and the way in which we do them will be the focus while we do them. While you do all that and until the day comes, what matters the most to you, what keeps you going is not why. It is not even what. It is who.
The people you do this with.
The people you do it for.
Colleagues, team members, the community.
And when the chips are down, organisations may bottle their vision. Or commit and get it wrong. Teams may do great work. Or not. The “what” may be sound and still not serve the “why”. Overlapping imperatives and shifting landscapes mean that even if we were good at “why” it would remain challenging to get it right. And as that shifts the “what” becomes fluid. Always interesting, not always ultimately useful.
But however bold or weak your vision, however solid or not your work approach, if you are looking for principles to navigate unfinishedness by, ask “who”.
Who is this for?
Who is in this with me?
Who shares the journey, forwards, and the reflection, backwards, and who benefits from whatever we do, by degrees, as we plough through unfinishedness?
I can think of no principle by which to navigate, more reliable than this.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!