ChangeLeadershipReflectionApril 21, 20154Step Aside For The New

If you think something simply isn't possible, don't get in the way of someone who thinks it is. You might be surprised.

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. 


  • Duncan M.

    May 15, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Eri­ka, this arti­cle real­ly made my day. This is a sto­ry ded­i­cat­ed to all those peo­ple who can’t even wait to fin­ish your sen­tence to ruin all your beliefs. Peo­ple do need to stop and lis­ten. There are so many ideas that can turn out to be out­stand­ing if we think a bit out­side the box.


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