No man steps in the same river twice — Heraclitus

We can learn from what has gone before, and we must, but we also must recognise that what we are seeing now is not what we have seen before; although it may be very similar, it is not the same.

It is never the same.

The River

A river is never the same; the water is always moving, it is always changing, but the constantly moving water has other effects too. The river bed changes, the water erodes the rocks, shifts the mud and the silt, when someone steps in the river they leave an impression, even if they step in again 10 seconds later, it’s not the same river bed.

The same can be said of the bank, it too is eroding, it too is being worn down by the water, by the weight of the person stood on it, or maybe it is being built out as the river drop sediment rather than picks it up, but it is never static, it changes, albeit slowly.

So slowly in fact that it might look like the same river, it has many of the characteristics of the same river, it also shares characteristics with many other rivers. After all, it has two banks, it has a rocky or a sandy or a muddy bed, it has water flowing down it, it is a river.

But it is not the same river.

Projects work in this way, while they have defining characteristics that make them a project (a start date, an end date, a budget, a defined output, etc) no two project are exactly alike.

Even if you’ve just delivered something like a tech rollout to a market, and you’re moving on to the next market, it is still not the same. The tech might be the same, but it’s very likely that the system you’re replacing will be different. The culture that you operate in will be different, the people that you’re working with will be different.

We must learn to balance what we have learned before, what can be industrialised and standardised across projects, vs what is unique, and what must remain unique, what is different from before.

A lot is repeatable from project to project, but a lot is not, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that what worked in one place, for one roll out, will work in the next, we must never be so complacent as to dismiss the inherent differences from one project to the next, possibly even one wave of a project to the next wave of the same project.

The Man

So the river is never the same, but what about the man? Or the person?

Well, they are never the same twice either, after every experience we are different, we have learned, we understand the river better, this river, all rivers; we have a wet foot.

Experience changes us as we learn from what has happened before, I have a friend who says “Try going a day without learning something new.”, seriously; try it, I bet you can’t.

As we learn we gain understanding, what tools or approaches worked, what didn’t, what needs tweaking, what needs abandoning, what can we do better, what should we do more of, or less of?

And then we take that knowledge and apply it to the situation that we’re facing, a situation that might look a lot like any number of situations we have faced before, but as we have already established, is not; and it might work, or equally it might not.

Every time we step into the river we understand it better, we understand all rivers better, but we must never think that we understand them all. In fact, we must understand, deeply, that they are all unique.

It is ego that tells us that we have seen it all, that we understand all the rivers because we have seen enough of them. Ego tells us that we have the answers, we have crossed this river before, we have delivered this project, but we haven’t, we have crossed a very similar river, we have delivered a very similar project.

But things may have shifted in the water, there may have been heavy rainfall upstream that we can’t see or know about.

Be humble, assume nothing, you don’t have all the answers; instead step into the water with the confidence that you have faced the unknown before, and you have prevailed; know that you can adapt, that you can apply knowledge and experience in new ways to face the new challenges that this river affords you

But it won’t be the same river.

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