Today in yoga class my instructor threw us a curveball. She had the chutzpah to pull some new moves on us regulars. We all kinda looked around at each other clearly questioning her judgment about moving us out of our routine. Doesn’t she know we feel safer doing what we know???

As I was bending my body into shapes and positions I didn’t know were possible (but will likely need a long time from which to recover), it occurred to me that while we were doing unfamiliar moves the overall process was still familiar. And with that understanding and the trust that underlies it, we took a collective dive off the edge of cognitive comfort.

Don’t just sit on the edge of discomfort – dive in. Oh, and be sure to take some process with you…

I’ve been preoccupied lately with writing content for a new web application for project management. My deliverables are focused on the interpersonal skills needed for managing projects, which got me thinking about what can bridge the space between discomfort and comfort with the unfamiliar.

Some people seem to be natural champs with anything new and unfamiliar. They experience discomfort as a thrill and seem surrounded by an aura that says “BRING IT” to any random challenge or problem. Then there are others who tend not to stray very far from the familiar. Often they’ve been burned or screwed when they did try to color outside the lines which is why they hang with the familiar.

Why does there seem to be such extremes? There are a lot of things that go into it like personality, experience, etc, but what I think can help the thrill-seekers be more purposeful and the “Steady Eddies” be more daring is using process.

Process for mastery

I remember reading some years ago about the 10,000 hours to mastery phenomenon in Zenger’s book The Extraordinary Leader and then more recently in Malcom Gladwell’s book The Outliers. They both said the key to mastering anything is practice and exposure. What they didn’t necessarily say directly but can certainly be inferred is the power that process plays in the development of mastery.

Process offers a sense of the familiar. It gives us a touchstone we can trust as we move through activities that are new, different, and challenging. Some would say that process impedes creativity, innovation, and progress, but I disagree. Process actually removes the thinking needed for the routine activities and tasks in project management – for the things that DON’T support innovation, problem solving, and creativity.

It gives us rules and structure that free up brain space for the cognitive effort needed for the more complex things like change management, problem solving, communication, and issue management. Process reinforces order and discipline that provide the constraints needed to be truly creative. As an example, when a client requests copy for a website that meets three objectives that are embedded in a 3000 word document but has to be done in 300 characters or less, this is where the creative begins for me. I will get to work using a process I’ve developed to take the idea around and down a figurative cylinder until the requirements are met.

So where does the project management bit come in?

Because projects are temporary and unique, projects mean change. This suggests somewhere somebody is going to have to do something different. And you can bet they probably will have some resistance and frustration with it along the way just like we felt in that yoga class.

This is when I lean on process. For me it’s the equivalent of taking a step back before things get randomly hurled in what may or may not be the right direction. Process offers something familiar we can trust when trying something new or attending to a challenge. It lets us tap into that intuitive understanding of a situation that helps us connect the dots because we’re not chewing up brain space trying to figure out all the mundane things that surround it.

So next time you’re doing something familiar and you’re asked to stretch beyond it just remember process is the constant companion that’s always got your back. You only need to trust it and use it.