Don’t tell me it can’t be done – find a way to do it!

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journals on September 21, 2020.

Leaders frequently share with me that they have difficulty finding solutions to business issues they face. I tell them about the need to break their paradigms – their established ways of approaching a problem, and to think outside the box. 

I have written in the past on this subject, and do so again due to its importance. The following two examples of organizations breaking their paradigms are excerpts from my book, “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.”

Doolittle raid over Tokyo

In the 2001 film “Pearl Harbor,” soon after the United States declares war on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt orders the Joint Chiefs of Staff to strike back by bombing Tokyo. These military leaders offer reasons 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 and Russia won’t let the United States launch from Russian territory. Roosevelt says to them, “Do not tell me it can’t be done.” 

What Roosevelt did was challenge the 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 be launched off an aircraft carrier that would sail within striking distance of Tokyo. 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 James Doolittle, who trained the pilots and led the bombing mission. 

Rebuilding the Phone System 

As manager of operations planning early in my career at PQ Corporation, one of the most impactful lessons I learned was what can be accomplished by breaking paradigms. 

Our CEO, Paul Staley, asked Russell Ackoff, then professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, to talk with the senior leadership team at PQ about applying his idealized design approach to our manufacturing technologies to break our paradigms. As a mid-level manager, I was very fortunate to be included in these sessions. 

Ackoff described a meeting (video from Marc Pierson on Vimeo) that he attended in 1951 of engineers and scientists at Bell Labs, a division of the phone company AT&T, in which the facilitator abruptly announced to the meeting participants that the phone system in the United States was just destroyed. How would they not only rebuild the system, but reimagine and improve it? The only criteria that they needed to meet were that the new phone system design had to be technically feasible and operationally viable. The facilitator was asking the meeting participants to break their paradigms and think out of the box. 

In the process of establishing the specifications of the new phone system, the participants realized that touchtone dialing took 12 seconds off the time it took to dial a phone number, compared with the then current mechanical rotary dial technology. Touch-tone dialing was much less capital-intensive than rotary dialing, an important benefit as the phone system grew. 

At that moment in history, the touch-tone dial system became the technology of choice for the future phone system. Little did the participants know the significant impact that a reimagined phone system based on touch-tone dialing would have on our lives in the future. 

Ackoff was considered a pioneer in the field of management science, systems thinking, and operations research. He passed away in 2008. I regret that I did not think to reach out to him in his later years and let him know the significant impact he had on my thinking. 

Leaders, create a culture focused on breaking paradigms. This is a way to differentiate and create a sustainable advantage over your competitors. And remember, when you hear from employees that something can’t be done, respond with, “Don’t tell me it can’t be done.” Find a way to do it.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at

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