How Do We Operate When We Can’t See the Finish Line?

Right now, in July 2020, we have several problems: COVID-19 the disease, the effect of the virus on our economy, and a reckoning of our culture. Each problem shares a common characteristic. We can’t see the finish line. We might know what we want, and we can’t see how to get there.

This is related, but not the same as Crossing the Desert Syndrome. (I wrote about this in more detail in Manage It!) That’s where you focus on an interim goal, burn your energy to achieve it, and then realize you have a ton more work to do.

We can see the finish line for much of our other work. For example, in our communities, we might see food insecurity and say, “We want every child to go to bed every night well-fed. And, not worry about food for tomorrow.” That goal might not be easy. And, we can measure our progress towards that goal.

Software products are even easier to create a finish line and work towards it.

We can see the eventual goal for COVID-19: We can move freely in society, traveling, working, socializing.

And, I don’t see the finish line. I see the goal. I don’t know what that goal looks like. That’s because we have so much still unknown about the virus. Does this virus act more like chickenpox, where you get the vaccine and then you’re set for life? (Well, we think it’s life. I had the chickenpox, so I am supposedly set for life. Except for shingles.)

Or, will we need yearly variations, like the flu?

Or, something in between?

When we can’t see the finish line, we tend to focus on interim goals.

Why Focus on Interim Goals?

I admit I love my interim goals. As an example, I track the words I write every day. I have to “package” those words into blog posts, articles, books, etc. However, my words have little to no value until I get to the “end.” I need to write enough to publish. Publishing is my finish line. I use words per day as my interim goal.

However, I can see the finish line. I can see the final “form” of my writing. I can see enough into the future that I know if I write enough, I will have enough for a post, article, book.

We can’t see that with COVID-19.

Achieving a decreasing number of hospitalizations and deaths? Excellent. An interim goal.

Fewer positive tests? Excellent. Another interim goal.

Opening the economy, especially in stages? Of course, another excellent interim goal.

And, opening the economy so you don’t start-and-stop means you need to measure the other data. (Probably more data, too, but I’ll stop with fewer hospitalizations and deaths and fewer positives.)

All of these are interim goals.

I wrote a newsletter several years ago about emergent projects: Emergent Projects: Managing the Unpredictable. Those three ideas are helpful even in this crisis. And, they’re not enough.

We need enough imagination to create the finish line.

As Peter Drucker said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” 

When I can’t see my finish line(s), I do create interim goals. And, I hope we learn to use these interim goals as a way to feed our imaginations—to create those real finish lines.

That’s the question this week: How do we operate when we can’t see the finish line?

3 thoughts on “How Do We Operate When We Can’t See the Finish Line?

  1. Jim Grey

    The more we learn about the coronavirus and our nation’s response to it, the more I think we won’t return to normal anytime soon. To your point, we don’t know where the finish line is. So I’m choosing to keep adapting to reality as it changes. That means I have to pay a lot of attention, lest reality change absent my notice. The tradeoff is that this vigilance requires energy, leaving me less for other things. Another tradeoff is that when this is over and we can return to more or less normal, I’ll have to readapt to it.

    1. Johanna Post author

      Yup. I cringe a little every time I hear “return to normal.” I like the way you framed it as “more or less normal.” I’m pretty sure we have changed our norms for good, at least for the kind of work you and I do.

      You said it: the constant adaptation and readaptation takes a lot of energy. I’m nominally on vacation this week, but it doesn’t feel like it. I don’t have the regeneration a good vacation offers. Another adaptation.

  2. Pingback: Five Blogs – 6 July 2020 – 5blogs

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