Innovation’s Enemy: The Words, “We Can’t”

Have you ever tried to pitch an idea just to hear someone tell you, “We can’t”? I know I have, too many times actually. While sometimes there is some truth to the “We can’t” claim, we often over emphasize our (in)ability to do something and deemphasize our obligation to do something. To explain what I️ mean by this, let’s consider the following example.

Let’s say you were on an airplane and the pilot was unable to fly the plane themselves due to a medical emergency. You, someone who has never flown a plane before, is asked by a flight attendant, “Will you fly this plane for us? You are the most qualified person here!” Naturally, your first response will be “I can’t!” Your statement is true if you are just looking at your ability, but unfortunately for you, today your ability is not the deciding factor: it is your obligation. In this situation, the obligation should supersede the ability. The same can be said in business. Many times I have worked on a project that would improve our product or our customer experience but have been told “We can’t.” It is always frustrating because often it is not about whether we can or cannot, but should we? This is what I call the “ability-obligation contradiction” because if we should do something, the idea that you “can’t” is a contradiction that is preventing you from doing the thing you need to be doing. 


Let’s break down all the situations and what frame of mind should be used when you find yourself in each of the quadrants of the ability-obligation contradiction matrix.

Can and Should

This is the inherent “no brainer” or “low-hanging fruit” of any business. If you have the ability to do something and the obligation to do so, it is quite obvious that you need to do it.

Can’t and Shouldn’t

Another no brainer, but on the opposite side of the spectrum…and I hope you aren’t really spending much time on ideas in this category! As I am sure you figured out by now, there is no decision to be made here, so let’s move on…

Can, but Shouldn’t

Now we are getting in the grey area. It may not seem like it given the title, but unfortunately this situation comes up a lot in the business world but we often don’t realize it. I would argue that we end up in this bucket because there is an unclear problem definition on the project you are working on. The other problem here could be caused by scope or solution creep. Lastly, it could just be human tendency to keep coming up with ideas to solve problems that do not exist. This is the infamous “nice to haves” that get added-on to many projects. Sometimes when you are not careful though, these additional things create overlap with other parts of the business. Redundant work is often non-value add and not good for the customer, or business. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

An example of this can be seen with a project I worked on for a new customer facing product. The scope and solution kept getting bigger because there was a lot of discussion of “Wouldn’t it be nice if it also did…” The issue though is some of those other features people wanted to add were available to the customer via another application or workflow. So will adding these new features add value to the customer if they already have access to them? If we give these things to the customer, will they be upset because we have created “double work” for them? In many cases, the individuals making the decision are making certain assumptions which convince them that they should do something to justify doing it because they can. In Project Management, this is called “gold plating” because you are giving the customer something that they didn’t ask for or is outside of your scope. Gold plating is not good because you are wasting resources.

Can’t, but Should

This is the fun one and the crux of so many day-to-day business issues. Many people and organizations end up in this bucket when there is not a clear vision to aid decision-making or when the rules people are using to make decisions are different amongst the potential decision makers. If you find yourself in this bucket, here are some things to think about:

  1. Are you sure this is something that you should do? If yes, proceed to item two. If no, then think about what quadrant you are actually in.
  2. Does everyone agree that this is something that should be done? If yes, go to item four. If no, go to item three.
  3. Figure out how to get people to see that this should be done. This is important because to others, the perception is you are in the Can’t and Shouldn’t quadrant. You can’t solve a problem if everyone is not in the same quadrant.
  4. Start thinking creatively about how to solve this contradiction between obligation and ability.

The most basic question to ask someone who is stuck on the “We can’t” idea is to simply ask, “What would have to change for us to be able to do this?” I️ once asked this of someone who was telling me that what I️ was trying to do was “impossible.” Their response to my question was, “We would have to scrap all our IT systems and move to one central system and that is never going to happen.” Surprise! Three years after I️ had that conversation with that individual, our company scrapped the IT Systems, got one central system and that individual was now a part of a brand new department that I️ had pitched three years prior as part of my “impossible” project. While I️ personally did not get the organization to make this decision, my project which was originally seen as a “We can’t” project became a “We can” once the crux of the issue was resolved by the organization (the dispirate IT systems). This was all possible because the organization overcame the can’t because the obligation of should was finally deemed as becoming the most important thing to do.


So the next time you find yourself in a situation where you are reflecting on ability or obligation, make sure you are thinking about both. If you are only focusing on ability, you may be doing more than what you need (i.e. gold plating). If you are only focusing on obligation, you are going to find yourself stuck in the contradiction of should but “can’t” with other people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s