I was talking to a wonderful, wise woman today: I learned a lot from her, and I hope she also learned useful things from me. She told me a great quote that she has made part of her email signature line:
People who say it can’t be done shouldn’t interrupt those who are doing it.
When she said it to me, my first reaction was to laugh out loud, in that surprised way that happens when something strikes you as completely and unexpectedly true. I’ve seen that very thing happen in corporate life dozens, perhaps hundreds of times over the past few decades. While some people are pontificating at length about why something isn’t possible, someone else is quietly going about doing it. For instance, I just found out that, even as Wilbur and Orville Wright were preparing to complete their first successful trials of a manned, heavier-than-air flying machine, the New York Times published an article from which the following is an excerpt:
The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years—provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials.
— ‘Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly,’ published in theNew York Times, 9 October 1903.
It sounds really smart and well-reasoned (if somewhat smug and self-righteous), but it also turns out, as we all know, to have been complete and utter nonsense.
Fortunately, the Wright Brothers weren’t working for the New York Times, or any of the other thousands of people who were opining that what they were doing was impossible and foolish. Where the quote above gets less funny, but even more true, is when the people doing the talking about what can’t be done are the bosses of the people who are able to do it. That’s when innovation and creativity get torpedoed, and companies (if it gets bad enough and consistent enough) collapse.
For instance, I will bet you any amount of money that there were young people working for Barnes and Noble in 2005, who were trying to tell their bosses that e‑readers were the wave of the future, and that they could build one of they just had the support, and those bosses rolled their eyes and dismissed the idea entirely, and blathered on about the strength of the B&N business model and how people will never give up the feel of a real book, or stop coming to bookstores, especially now that we have cafes and kids’ play areas and blah blah blah blah. And all the while Jeff Bezos and company were busy inventing the Kindle in a back room somewhere.
So the next time someone — especially someone who works for you — comes to you with an idea that you believe is just plain impossible, or impractical, or too expensive, or not how people want to do X.…just shut up. Suspend your disbelief, and really listen. Ask them to walk you through how they would do it, and what it would require.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to see how it could be done, and why it should be done…
And that could change everything.