Minding the gap – three moments of time

by Philip Boxer

How do we engage, describe and work without boundaries? How do we move beyond the familiar BART (boundary, authority, role, task) view of systems? And what does it mean to take up a network approach to leadership? A recent Regional Meeting of ISPSO in London took up these questions in terms of the ‘network-coach’ discourse, based on Simon Western’s work on Coaching and Mentoring[1]. This work very usefully distinguishes four kinds of discourse about the nature of coaching and mentoring, based on his research. This led Simon to ask me to clarify three ‘moments’ of time[2] that, while potentially facing a person in any one of these discourses, become particularly critical in the network-coach discourse.

Three moments of time
I described my work with a CEO who started our work together by describing a particular challenge he faced: he could not fit what his not-for-profit did into the normal kinds of business planning framework – service products, markets, competitive strengths and weaknesses, 5-year cashflow prediction etc. The not-for-profit was providing intensive social care, operating in the gap between the social services provided by the UK Government and individuals’ and families’ needs.

  1. The challenge he faced was a crisis for him that had arisen because of the planning framework his Board had asked him to use, which had defined a first moment for him[3] but which had brought about this first crisis – what the not-for-profit was actually doing did not fit the normal kind of business planning framework.
  2. The second moment[4] involved us working together to understand what was different about the economics of his not-for-profit, about how it needed to be organised differently, and about the different kinds of relationship this demanded between its employees and those to whom it provided care.  The result was a business plan that was accepted by the Board to form the basis of the next 5 years’ work by the not-for-profit, but also a second crisis – something else was needed if the not-for-profit was to develop different ways of actually behaving, a something else that was beyond any business plan. This second crisis was one in which the existing approach faces an impossibility.[5]
  3. So with this second crisis came a crunch time.  Something new was needed in the way the CEO engaged with the employees of the not-for-profit.  As it turned out, this inaugurated a third moment[6] in which a whole new challenge emerged initiating a new cycle of work aimed at addressing this challenge, but it took courage for him to accept this new challenge and ‘own’ the need to take it up – in effect a third crisis.

These three moments of time and the two crises that separate them can be summarised as follows:

  • 1st moment: Accepting the stated problem/challenge and hoping that the existing approach will work.
  • 1st Crisis: Realising that the existing approach will not work on its own.
  • 2nd moment: Getting to grips with the details of the particular situation and adapting the approach to try to make it work.
  • 2nd Crisis: Realising that there is a fundamental limitation to the way the approach can be made to work.
  • 3rd moment: The requirement of the persons involved to put themselves ‘on the line’ in some way in order to act from something new that has the possibility of addressing the gap that has emerged.
  • 3rd Crisis: Given what I have come to understand, do I act in this moment?

Given that the CEO can get past the third crisis, these moments of time form a cycle of learning that is only bearable if the gap can be acknowledged – not hidden behind ‘solutions’. So in this case, the CEO works with the knowledge that gaps will always be there, however good the ‘solution’ appears to be, and that by remaining aware of these gaps, he can work with it while looking for the next gap to appear, which in turn will need to be acknowledged and worked through.

Minding the gap
This relation to the gap is what underlies Simon’s network-coaching discourse – realising that we don’t have neat boundaries, authority, role and task, that there is always a gap, and that the network society we live and work in presents us with increasing connectivity that pushes not towards identifying authority vertically in roles, but towards addressing horizontal rhizome-like power, power that is everywhere and yet cannot be pinned down. Simon’s conclusion was that, at best, we can find quilting points[7] that can anchor our relation to these networks for long enough to enable us to make good-enough sense and to act – until the next gap appears.

More on the third moment
Further insight into what is involved in ‘minding the gap’ may be gained by looking more closely at the third moment. This third moment, corresponding to the ‘nightmare’ stage in a narrative structure [8], is frequently where people stop. In effect, what has happened is that a person has come to the end of conscious reasoning and may even be perfectly aware that what they are continuing to do makes no sense. But the need to address a third crisis stops them from going further.

This third moment can itself be divided into three hurdles that, in being crossed, bring a person to a third crisis:

  1. It is as if a higher authority has said: “Stop. Go no further. Not another word. It’s just not possible to go any further, and you are going to have to make do with what you have.” This is like a first hurdle within this third moment.
  2. If the person continues, by saying “yes, but look what is going on. Surely things can’t be left like this. There must be something more that can be done.” This time, the stunned response from the higher authority is: “What do you want? What do you expect of me? Who are you to expect more to be done. Don’t you see how much is being done already? Stop making problems.” This is the second hurdle within this third moment.
  3. Now comes the crunch. If the person still continues to insist that it must be possible to do something, then the question asked of the person moves to being their own question: “what do I want? What am I prepared to do about this situation that feels so wrong. I am going to have to go beyond what I know here if I am to do something more.”[9] This is the third hurdle within this third moment that leads directly into the third crisis.

What does this say about the nature of the challenge faced in minding the gap? It is that this gap is experienced as a [small-d] desire to do more, to go beyond what is known in the service of doing something more. In lacanese, to ‘mind the gap’ in this sense is to take up the ethical imperative to be true to [big-D] Desire – an ethic that demands that the subject ‘pays with their being’ in the sense of putting themselves on the line in some way.[10]

[1] Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text (2012) Sage.
[2] These three moments of time are based on the three moments in Lacan, J. (2006 [1966]). Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty: A New Sophism. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York, W.W. Norton & Co.
[3] The instant of the glance, ibid. This is the idea that you should be able to understand just by looking.
[4] The time for understanding, ibid. This involves having to work things out by thinking things through. The reasoning depends on the framework within which it is done.
[5] For more on the challenges of surfacing the nature of this impossibility, see working on the edges.
[6] The moment to conclude, ibid. The third moment is the moment that brings us to the ‘challenge of the case’, a new challenge that demands that the person puts themselves ‘on-the-line’ by going beyond what they know in choosing to take up the new challenge in how they act.
[7] These points of anchorage are ‘points de capitons‘ in Lacanese – they are ways in which we anchor how we organize making meaning.
[8] For more on this, see “Betraying the citizen: social defences against innovation.” (2015) Organisational & Social Dynamics 15(1): 1-19.
[9] See Meeting the Challenge of the Case (in Casemore et al (eds) 1994 “What Makes consultancy work – understanding the dynamics” South Bank University Press pp358-371), in which Barry Palmer and I explore the nature of this challenge through a series of workshops. The nature of this challenge is taken from D.W. Winnicott (1965) Training for Child Psychiatry in “The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment”. Hogarth Press., in which Winnicott argues that, if the child is to be helped, someone must be prepared to go beyond what they know…
[10] The reasoning behind these three hurdles within the third moment comes from a session given during the course of Lacan’s XXVI 1978-79 seminar series on 8th May by Alain Didier-Weil in “A new theory of the Superego”. Didier-Weil, A. (1979). Nouvelle théorie du Surmoi. Book XXVI – Topology and Time. J. Lacan. unpublished.

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