Monthly Archives: November 2009

"Can we…?" vs. "Should we…?"

Remember being a kid and having an adult correct you for asking, “Can I have a cookie?” with the pattest of pat responses, “You CAN but you MAY not.”

The analogy to this childhood drama I have been seeing lately is getting the question, ” Can we (insert request you tend to get in your job that is a pet peeve here)?” and replying with, “Yes, we CAN, but SHOULD we?”

I find that answering a “Can we” question directly tends to involve a heightened allocation of resources – time and money – in an environment that may not produce optimal results (not to mention in an environment where time and money are scarce resources). It is the rallying together of folks to be “team players” in order to “get it done” in a “drop dead” situation that tends to come with a direct answer to “Can we”.

I would advise one or two potential courses of action to effectively deflect or completely shift away from the dreaded “Can we”.

First, be prepared. Consider as many potential alternative courses of action that you can dream up – or that you think your audience might dream up – and play out the scenarios. Use your time resource wisely not just to get the work done going down one path, but to make it as bullet proof as possible. This will allow you to be able to address most potential “Can we’s” you might receive.

Second, if you do get a “Can we” you didn’t anticipate, do not be afraid to ask – in whatever form or fashion deemed acceptable in your organization – “Should we”. This requires you to have a clear, distinct understanding of the intent of the work that you’re doing, which means in most instances that you can answer the “Should we” question before you even ask it (and even if it wasn’t a scenario you vetted previously). But ask it anyway – getting an answer to this simple question can very quickly get you needed input and alignment on your work.

Additionally – and perhaps more importantly – it demonstrates your critical, strategic thinking. Ultimately, changing the conversation from a “can we” to a “should we” allows you to become a partner or collaborator instead of a resource or executor.

And, hopefully, you’ll get that cookie you wanted…

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