“The difficult we can do at once, the impossible will take a little longer.”- various
The origin of this quote, and the variations of it, is dated back to 1794. It is first attributed to the Finance Minister to King Louis 16th, Charles de Calonne. Another version is attributed to Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian pole explorer. It also seems to have been adopted by a number of military branches in America and England.*
As a programme manager tasked with what often seems impossible when you start out, I have learnt through experience that there is a recipe to getting things done. You grapple with the task, picking on various threads, having conversations around it with various people, and gradually the steps to reach the goal form in your mind and become clear. Even the seemingly impossible tasks become easier if you just start by defining important terms – break your task down into phrases that you can say in other words.
I was once tasked with creating a programme of work to improve resilience in an IT landscape. Where do you even start with such a vague concept? By defining Resilience. By defining the IT landscape. By defining the measures you will use to show improvement.
What do I mean define the term “IT landscape”? To systematically break that concept down into the various elements at play, in this case applications, databases, processes, people actions. Go on to define the second level – what is an application, what is a database. Then circulate those terms and get the organisation to agree to and accept that definition. The same for the concept of “resilience” – is it the ability to bounce back? The ability to recover? The ability to withstand adversity?
Once we had the definition down, we could string the two definitions together, with the definition for the metrics, and suddenly the road was a little clearer. We built a list of applications. We worked out a scoring mechanism to define which of them are critical. Worked out an assessment process. Assessed against resilience criteria. What was once an impossible task, is suddenly far more do-able than the vague request to improve resilience in an IT landscape.
I apply the same in my personal life. Examine the problem statement, not the emotion or detail around it, and continually focus on either the plan around the problem statement, or the higher vision the problem relates to. This is based on the model proposed by David Rock in his book “Quiet leadership”.**
Where you put your focus determines what you see the most of and what you experience. If you focus on the detail of the problem, you will be overwhelmed. If you focus on the emotions, you will forever be struggling with the emotions.
Once you start focusing on the actual problem, and how that links to the bigger plan and vision, things start becoming clearer.
If you link everything back to your vision, where you ultimately want to be, the drama (emotions) and detail matters less and less. Ultimately this enables you to say, with the French Finance Minister, the US Army, the British Navy and a famous explorer – the difficult we can do at once, the impossible may take a little longer.
*(For a full history of the origin, see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/06/10/impossible-longer/)