The Culture of Can't

Resistance to change is a natural, programmed human response. As a rule, people hate change, and will go to ridiculous lengths to avoid it. They create a Culture of Can't, and present excuse after excuse for why change is not only a bad idea, but downright impossible.

But change is necessary and healthy - it helps us adapt to ever-changing conditions - and resistance to change has a cost.

In the days before Mount St. Helens erupted, the authorities and the folks who lived nearby were told by volcanologist David Johnston - a scientist who had studied the mountain for years - how devastating the inevitable eruption would be. He told them that it was going to explode with the force of a nuclear weapon. He said that it would release rivers of mud, avalanches of snow, and super-heated ash at hundreds of miles an hour, killing anyone in the area.

The local government still took weeks to decide to close the park - and tried to reopen it again when the eruption didn't happen right away. 54 people who lived near the mountain refused to leave. Most of their bodies were never recovered. That included David Johnston, who was in an area that was thought to be relatively safe.

Change happens; it's how the universe works. There is nothing that anyone can do to prevent it. The trick is to find a way to make change work in your favor - to create a Culture of Can. Instead of wasting your time and energy pushing back or dragging your feet, pick the change apart to find the opportunities that it presents. If you dig, there are diamonds in that mud. You want to be the one who finds them before someone else does.

Because there is always a volcano, a change in the social or political landscape, an asteroid, a disease, or a predatory competitor more than happy to make you extinct.

'My' Customers

One of the biggest and most destructive mistakes that any manager can make is to let an employee think of any Customer as 'theirs'. They can certainly take ownership of a Customer's needs and issues, but not the Customer, ever. The Customer belongs to the business, not to the employee, no matter how terrific they are.

The only thing that stops you from putting this into practice is fear. But is that really how you want to run your business, doing anything to keep employees and Customers? Because if you do, it's not your business any more, no matter who signs the checks.

"Nonsense!" you say. "What harm can allowing an employee to bond with a Customer cause? So what if they do things outside of our established process - they bring in results!"

What you're missing is that it's just another version of the 'special situation'. If you allow one employee to work outside of what is normally allowed, it creates extra work for everyone involved down the chain, and breeds resentment among the employees that are not so privileged. It's likely that your star player is only a star because they're allowed to circumvent the rules. But if that's true, why not do away with the rules entirely and let everyone do what they want with 'their' Customers?

Because you fought long and hard to get away from that chaos - remember? - and now you're backsliding.

"But it builds employee loyalty!"

Nonsense. What it breeds are bullies who make life hell for everyone else when they don't get their way, setting impossible Customer expectations that cost your organization time, money, and yes, Customers. And if Customers know that they can get whatever they want by going to your bully, why would any of them go to anyone else?

And then, of course, your bully leaves, and takes all of 'their' Customers with them, while you curse them for being exactly what you made them.

Stop being co-dependent! If there are rules, they apply to everyone, and anyone who can't succeed by following them doesn't belong. Stop allowing employees to run your business - that's your job. If you don't do it, nature abhors a vacuum, and is more than willing to put someone else in your chair, whether you realize it or not.

Eliminate GAS

Something that happens once you’ve been in any job awhile is that you start to notice patterns in what Customers want and do. Human brains are hard-wired to spot patterns. That’s what helped you remember your mother’s face when you were two weeks old, and that’s what helped us spot the leopard in the grass 30,000 years ago. Pattern recognition is one of the things that has made us such a successful species.

Once you’ve been on the job a little longer, though, you start to make assumptions about what Customers want, and that tendency only gets stronger over time. We think we can guess what Customers will say if we tell them that they need $800 worth of brake work, or assume they don’t want leather seats, or speculate about the state of their credit based on the clothes they wear.

The trouble is, we’re often wrong. People are individuals, not pre-programmed robots. And it’s not just that we’re wrong with our first guess - a single Customer’s answers can change over time, too. And they may not want to tell a complete stranger what they really think right out of the gate. That’s part of why many sales classes teach you to ask the same question three different ways.

Don’t guess. Don’t assume. Don’t speculate. Find out. Ask, and ask more than once, and in different ways. That’s the only way to know.


Every employee in your organization has a bowl. Back in the '90's it was a plate, and everyone talked about how full their plate was. In the 21st Century, we've increased productivity, which is putting positive spin on the fact that we've eliminated a lot of positions but not their associated responsibilities. Instead, we've heaped those responsibilities on existing staff, who no longer talk about how full anything is because they don't have time - all of which brings us to the bowl.

It's a bowl because the plate wasn't big enough. If your workplace is like most, everyone you know now does the equivalent of three jobs. They come in early, eat at their desk, and don't leave until it's dark (or, for some poor souls, just getting light). All of which is fine, fine... hire 5, work them like 10, pay them like 8, right? Only we don't, we pay them like 3, or maybe 4 if they've been around long enough, because isn't being a good corporate steward all about increasing returns?

All of which is grand material for a book, or possibly a sea change in corporate culture, but what we've gathered here to talk about today is slosh.

Slosh is what happens when you try to add something to a bowl that's already full to the brim. As a famous fictional Scotsman once said, "you canna change the laws of physics". Every bright idea that you get and push down the chain of command means something is going to spill out the other end.

I know what your argument is going to be, and yes, it's going to be an argument: "But it's just 10 minutes," you'll say. "It will make us more efficient, which will actually save time," dances out of your mouth. "It will save time and money," you sing, and it sounds sweet, but it's all a lie, my dears - every syllable of it.

The old work doesn't go away when there is new work. It would be nice if it did, but it doesn't, and some parts of it can't go away without affecting other (madly important) bits down the line that you aren't even aware of. Slosh is the butterfly effect in motion, and the only way to prevent it is to study what the heck your people actually do before you even open your mouth.

I don't mean what you think they do, or what you think they should do, or what the books say they do. I mean what they actually do. And until you sit down with them for a day or two and watch, utterly silent and unobtrusive, I'll bet you a sandwich that your idea of what happens and what actually happens wouldn't recognize each other in a mirror.

The only way to prevent slosh is to make room first. There are a couple of ways to do this (the very last of which should be to hire more people).

Your first step, always, is to look at what we do now and determine if any part of it is redundant, inefficient, or flat-out insane (you know what I'm taking about). It's pointless to plant potatoes (although that's fun to say) until you get dirty and dig out the weeds. Once they're gone, there may be room for your new idea provided that:

a. It's cost-effective. (What do you mean you didn't write a business plan for your brilliant idea? This is business. In a business, we write business plans and do SWOT and whatnot. Look it up.)
b. There is genuine buy-in from the rank and file. Unless you've gone around and gathered their input, you've not only doomed your brilliant idea to a swift, largely ignored death, you've missed the opportunity to make your idea even better by throwing it up against their fiercest tire kicking and adopting their suggestions.
c. It's well planned and has a timeline, with deliverables that each person involved is responsible for.
d. You aren't responsible for more than half of the outcome.

Unless and until your process takes all of the above into account, your employees - even the ones that like you - will see your new idea as the enemy, and put into play the one defense they have at their disposal: Push back the launch, week by week, until you forget all about it and are on to the next shiny piece of tinfoil.

To Move or to Motivate

... that is the question.

If you have an employee that appears to have reached the end of their usefulness or the limits of their abilities (and really, isn't that the same thing?), you have a choice: Do you replace them, or do you try to coach them beyond their existing limitations?

If there is a large labor pool available, as is the case at the time of this writing, the current trend is to 'trade up'. It sometimes takes less effort to find someone with a higher readiness/ability quotient than it does to grow an existing employee. I would argue that that's part of why the labor pool is currently as large as it is: Many people without jobs simply don't have the willingness, readiness or the ability to get to the next rung.

Increasingly, as the education level of American high school and college graduates declines, we find ourselves off-shoring jobs simply because overseas employees have higher skill levels. (English grammar is my pet peeve. How many cover letters and resumes have you read lately that were misspelled, had poor punctuation, and sentence structure that made you cringe?) There is no sign that this downward trend is going to change, at least any time soon and, as a responsible manager, part of your job is to find the best person you can for each position.


If an employee has been with you any length of time, they have acquired knowledge. Often, and especially in key roles where no one else performs the same task, this knowledge exists nowhere else in your organization. Moving that employee out means starting from scratch, and usually at some expense. Have you ever felt like a given issue or project comes up over and over again, yet never seems to get resolved? Brain drain is likely the culprit - some key cog that had the knowledge necessary to resolve that issue or complete that project is no longer part of the organization, and you are taking two steps back for every step forward as a result.

Is that good corporate stewardship? If not, how do you solve the puzzle - especially when you have so little time to perform your own tasks, let alone mentor someone that may or may not take that next, vital step?

It helps to understand where that employee's limitations come from in the first place. It could be simply a matter of training, something you don't even have to do yourself. But as often as not, there is a deeper root that stands squarely in the employee's way - one that has dogged them their entire life. And to help them climb out of that box, you need to understand the Lifeboat Scenario.

Much smarter people than me have discovered that our reactions to potentially lethal situations (and if losing one's job over and over in this economy isn't lethal, what is?), we each fall into one of three camps. The scenario is a lifeboat that has sprung a leak and is going down fast, and the passengers self-divide as follows:

  • 30% panic, flail wildly, and either die quickly or accidentally find a way to live
  • 50% do nothing, and drown
  • 20% take stock, rationally determine a course of action, and live, often rescuing others on the way

It's easy to see where this behavior came from, and even why it makes sense from a survival of the species perspective: If a leopard attacks a tribe of early hominids, the ones who panic either draw the leopard's attention and die instantly (leaving the rest to live another day), or accidentally escape and eventually reproduce. The ones who do nothing either die (easy pickings), or fail to draw the leopard's attention (and live to reproduce). The ones who are rational think to pick up a good, heavy stick or a rock, and may succeed in driving the leopard away (resulting in minimal losses, leaving more potential reproduction partners).

In essence, the lifeboat scenario is nature throwing dice, in the hope that at least one of the three strategies works. But in modern humans, this genetic predisposition often gets in the way of our rational minds, resulting in a box that is difficult to escape.

It takes time and effort to assess willingness, readiness, and ability. But if at least one of those two traits exist in the employee, in the long run, it is less costly (in terms of time and money) to invest in driving the lower trait to the next rung, growing the employee and preventing yet another loss/hiring/backtrack cycle.

For more information about readiness, I suggest this article: