Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 10, 2018
In December 2015, I wrote an article headlined, “Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Find a way.” The article is about an event that changed how I viewed the necessity of breaking paradigms to create competitive advantage. That event influenced my leadership style, and still does so today. This is an update of that article.
As the leader of your organization, how many times do you hear from employees that something can’t be done? When I am told this, I now respond, “Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Find a way to do it.”
When I was the president of my company’s Canadian subsidiary, I led the team attempting to financially justify a new manufacturing plant to supply one of our products to a small geographic market in Alberta. There were insufficient revenues and cash flow to achieve a rate of return on the investment needed to justify the plant’s construction.
The CEO of our company challenged every standard design parameter of the plant. Due to his challenge, we changed our paradigms and redesigned the plant to reduce its capital cost and the number of people needed to staff it. The rate of return increased to above the threshold to fund the investment, and we were given approval by the board to build the plant.
This new plant design became the model for future plants of its type and gave us a very significant competitive advantage in the marketplace. The thought process we went through to design the plant was foundational to the company’s subsequent continuous improvement philosophy.
As depicted in the film “Pearl Harbor,” soon after the U.S. declares war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt orders the Joint Chiefs of Staff to strike back by bombing Tokyo. These military leaders offer reason after reason why it can’t be done – the U.S. long range bombers don’t have the necessary range from the nearest U.S. base on Midway Island; Russia won’t let the U.S. launch from Russian territory, etc. Roosevelt says to them, “Don’t tell me it can’t be done”.
What Roosevelt did was challenge the existing paradigms of his military leaders. He wanted them to be innovative and think out of the box. It took the assistant chief of staff for anti-submarine warfare to do so, an individual you would not necessarily expect to come up with a solution to this challenge. He proposed that B-25 bombers carrying extra fuel be launched off an aircraft carrier that would sail within a distant range of Tokyo, reducing risk to the carrier. After launch, the carrier would turn back, and after the bombing run, the planes would fly to China and land there.
This bombing mission over Tokyo is enshrined in history as the Doolittle Raid, named for Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who trained the pilots and led the bombing mission. Even though the bombing mission did little damage to Japan’s military capability, it provided a needed boost to American morale, and at the same time showed the Japanese that they were within the reach of American bombers.
When “something can’t be done,” there is usually a creative path forward that can achieve the result desired, or a similar result that might serve the purpose originally intended. Your corporate culture must encourage out-of-the-box thinking and risk-taking for this process to take place. Collaboration among people from different operating units, technical disciplines and business units are sometimes needed to find the path forward, as occurred when the assistant chief of staff for anti-submarine warfare came up with the idea of how to bomb Tokyo.
I have learned that if accomplishing the original goal proves to not be doable, a path can be found to accomplish 80 or 90 percent of that goal, which is better than not accomplishing it at all.
Leaders, whenever you are told something can’t be done, challenge your direct reports to find a way to do it. To those who are tasked to find that path, think outside the box and challenge existing paradigms. You will be surprised at what you can accomplish.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.