Hi, I'm Isaac.

I'm a consultant and advisor  for social enterprises - using business to change the world.

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Can't Because vs Can If

Can't Because vs Can If

Problem solving puzzle

I have a new contender for “Best Chapter Of A Business Book”
It’s from A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden, and is about how design constraints (e.g. time pressure, limited cash) prompt really clever and innovative ideas.

The chapter in question centres on two phrases: Can’t Because vs Can If

For most entrepreneurs/consultants/professionals, our default view is to analyse a problem, and identify good reasons why something won’t work (e.g. there’s not enough budget, we don’t know how to do it, etc)

We then report that good reason to our boards/investors/colleagues, even ourselves.
This is Can’t Because thinking, and while it’s not terrible, it can sometimes be unhelpful.

Can If is different.
Can If forces us to identify under what circumstances we could do an otherwise impossible task.
Instead of writing something off, we frame the required changes for it to work.

Or as my Dad always says:
Don’t tell me about the problem, tell me about the solution.

Looking at options

Interestingly, Can If isn’t about optimism – it’s very rational.
No blind faith, no ignoring the issues.
Instead, we’re naming the issues and then defining what it would take to remove them.

A good portion of these solutions will be too costly to achieve, and that’s ok.

What’s really valuable is the problems whose solutions are surprisingly simple – it only takes one or two twists to make them viable.
This allows us to make informed trade-offs, and do the things that are most important.

But it also brings back the excitement – we can see the finish line, and quantify if we have what it takes to be successful.
This also removes the false objections and narrows it down to the real problem.

You might recognise a similar approach taught in sales training: customers will state an objection, like the price, colour or delivery system.
Instead of taking these at face value, ask the customer a question;
“If we could order in a blue one, would you make the purchase today?” or
“If I could arrange free shipping, would that get you across the line?”
Our customer has to either agree (and we scramble to fulfil the promise), or they have to acknowledge the REAL issue that’s holding them back.

In our case, we’re both the salesperson and the customer.
Can If forces us to identify what’s really making us nervous – is it really just a matter of dollars, or is there something deeper?

By acting as the salesperson, we can separate the genuine barriers from the overblown concerns.
Better yet, it allows other people we trust to come in with creative ways of removing these barriers, and thereby enabling us to do something that we previously deemed impossible.

Can If thinking rewards lateral thinking.
It’s easy to spot a problem, but finding a solution requires creativity.
Fortunately, the creators of the question have a useful tool that prompts lateral thinking, by giving us nine great questions.

We get to brainstorm by filling in the gaps, ideally at least three answers for each question (don’t worry about rubbish answers, the more the merrier)

Image: A Beautiful Constraint

Image: A Beautiful Constraint

We can if we remove … to allow us to …

We can if we access the knowledge of …

We can if we introduce a …

We can if we substitute … for …

We can if we fund it by …

We can if we use other people to …

We can if we resource it by …

We can if we mix together …

We can if we think of it as …

This approach is particularly good when you’re exploring new ideas on a Business Model Canvas.
Once you’ve mapped your as-is model, the next step is to dream up a stack of alternative models, most of which sound too hard.

By identifying the Can Ifs for each box, you can see how a small adjustment can make a new business possible.
For example:
“We can if we partner with a large scale manufacturer”

“We can if we hire a top notch growth hacker”

“We can if we find a pipeline of donor organisations”

“We can if we move our content online”

Team creating ideas

Can If is harder than Can’t Because, but it makes you a much more valuable contributor.
It creates more options for your team to explore, and makes your clients see the opportunities and traps that lie in front of them.
Instead of you stomping all over their darling idea, you highlight the conditions for its success, and let them reach their own conclusion.

Try it for yourself.
Instead of putting every opportunity in the “Too Hard Basket”, ask yourself what it would take for the idea to fly.
This skill is like a muscle; the more you use it, the easier it becomes.
You’ll also enjoy the book itself, a fantastic collection of case studies and frameworks that will change how you approach tough situations in the future.

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