“We can if…”: Using Limitations as a Springboard.

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He mentioned it casually, passing over it without much thought. On the other side of the table, it made me pause. What if more leaders thought this way?

Let me back up. I was working with a relatively new client who worked for a prominent organization in town. We had been working on clarifying his goals and developing action he could take to reach his goals when he casually said that at his organization, their new mantra was “We can if….”

When I researched this phrase, a book entitled Beautiful Constraint showed up numerous times. Its premise was that constraints are not necessarily bad but help push us to be more innovative. A coworker at QVC, @Mark Buscaglia once said to me, I am not looking for someone who can produce a million dollar show for a million dollars; any idiot can do that; I am looking for the person who can produce a million dollar show for $100,000.

Constraints matter. The problem solver in me loves them.

By using the phrase, “We can if…” we are recognizing the path we want to travel while at the same time realizing there may be barriers along the way that we will need to remove. It is like the phrase, “Yes and…” which comes from the world of improvisation. The challenge with “Yes and…” it focuses on moving us forward without dealing with the issues at hand. Which is great for comedy but not all that useful in the workplace.

“We can if…” take a subtler approach, allowing that we can do it but that we may need to deal with some issues along the way. In conversations, it allows us to recognize that a coworker may have challenges that we will need to address before we move forward.

But of these are better than the alternative complete shutdown of “No…..”

Which for someone us, including myself, might be our default answer when another person suggests an idea or solution to a problem. The big challenge here is that we are shutting it down before we think about why it will work and what barriers we will need to remove.

I had a staff member who came to me and complained about the condition of the employee breakroom. I might have been feeling generous, as I said, create a plan to make it better and I will see what I can do. She worked on a plan and came back to me, and I said no, we don’t have it in the budget (the barrier).

For most employees, that was permission to stop. She, though, didn’t. She asked, “What is the budget?” I looked at her and thought of the conversation I had with my boss about how the company was missing our financial goals for the year.

“Zero,” I said, “although I might be able to squeeze out a little bit.”  

She looked at me, thinking as she told me later, why hadn’t I just told her that in the first place? Out loud, she said, “Okay,” and walked away.

Later that week, she came back to me and said, “I figured out how I can do it for $50. Can we afford that?” Of course, I said yes. She had seen the barrier and worked around it. By using her relationships, she got people on board; by donating free furniture, free paint, and other items, the break room was renovated. And the employees loved it.

Barriers are only guide rails to better solutions.

Instead of saying no, say We can if…

 John Thalheimer

CEO Partner and Leadership Coach at True Star Leadership

This spring, I am offering a 25% discount on The Star Emerging Leaders Coaching Sessions. Six-session coaching that includes goal setting, leadership assessment, and accountability sessions to remove barriers and fuel progress. If you are interested, call me at 615-461-0303 or email me at john@johnthalheimer.com

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