The Impossible

There comes a time in everyone’s career where you are going to be asked to do something that just can’t be done. It’s impossible, and “ask” is a euphemism for “told”. Like the game show “Jeopardy” where the answer is usually put in the form of a question. That doesn’t change the fact that just because you were “asked” doesn’t mean that you have the option to decline the request. You don’t. Regardless of how the directive has been phrased, you have been given an objective. On the first blush it looks like you have been asked to do the impossible. It’s time to get out the blue tights and red cape and get to work.

The art of the impossible is an interesting study in business. When first presented with an impossible task most managers are at a loss as to how to proceed. And as with any major loss there are five stages of grief associated with impossible assignments:

  1. Denial and Isolation. When this initial stage hits, resist the desire to grab the impossible goal assigning manager by the lapels, shirt or throat and shake them while stating the goal is in fact impossible to achieve. This will get you both talked about and visited by HR.

  2. Anger. While the description of Denial and Isolation may sound like anger, it’s not. Anger is what will happen when you sit down and really think about what you have been asked to do. Resist the impulse to scream, throw things and generally trash your office. This too will get you talked about and visited by HR.

  3. Bargaining. Now we are starting to get somewhere. This is the first step in starting to regain control of the situation. Start to explore timeframes, staff and budgets associated with the assignment. What do you have to work with?

  4. Depression. Depression will set in once you understand that you will not have enough time, people or money to accomplish the impossible. You probably won’t even have enough resources to accomplish the difficult or unlikely, let alone the impossible.

  5. Acceptance. The die is cast. You have your orders. You understand your constraints. There is nothing else for you to do but to get to work on the problem. Good luck. The vice president of the business unit will disavow any knowledge of the assignment. This memo will self destruct in five seconds.

When given an impossible assignment it is good idea to remember a few things before you get started. The first is that managers are usually creatures of habit. Leaders are not. This means that impossible assignment managers are limited in their scope and approach when it comes to the types of goals they assign. They only think the assignment is impossible. That’s why they gave it to you instead of solving it themselves. When given the impossible assignment understand from where the assignment was generated, and then quickly dismiss any associated approaches or scope. Incrementing an existing process or method will not get you from existing status quo to new and impossible.

Remember that while most businesses are prone to prattling on about how they encourage and embrace change they are in fact significantly risk averse in nature and will only change when forced to, and then only after significant keening and gnashing of teeth. New ideas and approaches on how to conduct business are not usually rapidly accepted to say the least. There is always a desire to see the new proven out before the old will be changed. The accompanying desire is to usually see the new proven out somewhere else first.

A good example of this phenomenon can be seen in the way most companies select their Chief Executive Officers. It seems that in order to be a CEO, you must have first been a CEO somewhere else. I look at this as the business equivalent of “Catch – 22” in its circular logic. The idea here seems to be that you have to have done the job in the past in order to be able to do the job now. It doesn’t seem to matter if you were an unsuccessful or ineffective CEO. The fact that you were a CEO enables you to be a CEO somewhere else. I think the same “you have to have done it before you get to do it” approach applies to just about every executive level in an organization as well, not just the CEO.

I have digressed, but only a little.

Impossible assignments are usually impossible only from the standpoint of the existing way of thinking or the existing process. In reality the impossible is usually just something that has not yet been done in the current organization, and because it hasn’t been done before it is assumed to be impossible. Impossible assignments are the genesis and catalysts of change in the organization. When management hits the point where the existing methods of business conduct will no longer deliver the results that are needed, an impossible assignment will result.  Leaders should look for these opportunities. They are the opportunity to prove you can do it before you get to do it.

The impossible requires that you take a step back, before you start going forward. It is the desired end state of the impossible that is the key. Once the desired goal is established, it is the decomposition of the logical steps backwards from that goal that will enable you to breakdown what appears to be an impossible leap in the old process into a number of achievable smaller steps in the new method.

Decomposition in the business world is the breaking down of large and complex issues into smaller, more manageable and less complex issues. Once the impossible issue is broken down into its smaller component, possible and solvable issues, the solution can then start to come into focus. This process is similar to the solving of the complex problem of how do you eat an elephant? The solution is one bite at a time.

Now just because you may have solved the problem and put the plan in place that would appear to enable the impossible objective to be achieved, don’t expect it to be immediately or unanimously embraced. There will be those who either have a stake hold in the existing business structure now or those who were unable to solve the impossible assignment in the past that may be reticent to accept the new approach. They may actually want to fight you to the death before they will accept a change in what they are doing or agree with you.

This is the point where your tenacity and self belief will come into play. If you have done the work, solved the problem and believe in your solution to what was once believed to be but no longer is impossible, you will need to continue to push forward. It may take a sustained force of will to see it through. It will require you to risk your credibility on your belief in your own work. While achieving the impossible may in fact be possible, it is usually never easily implemented or rapidly adopted.

Look for a method to test your approach and solution on a smaller scale to prove it out. No one will have more riding on a successful outcome than you, so you will need to maintain personal oversight and involvement in the test implementation. Most importantly, do not take no for an answer. If you have just succeeded in doing the impossible, are you really going to stop short of success just because someone said no?

The impossible is assigned every day. Solutions to the impossible do not arrive every day. Of the solutions to the impossible that arrive, many do not get successfully implemented because their owner did not have what it took to translate the theory into reality. For those impossible solutions that do get successfully implemented, the owner has now proven that they are now qualified to do the impossible, and should expect more impossible assignments in the future, as a reward.

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