Our military was founded on a “Can Do” spirit. Heck, our Nation was founded on the same. We proudly find ways to do more with less and we feel a bit lesser when we fall short. At the same time, we have books of regulations that tell us exactly what we can do. I’ve tried in the past to flip the script on teammates, but I have fallen short of my goal more often than not. They just don’t feel comfortable with Can’t Do Lists.

A few tours ago I was leading a team that was experiencing the same challenges so many others are: There was more work that needed to be done than people to do it. We wanted to do all of the work, but we just couldn’t. We asked for more people so we could do all that we felt we needed, but there weren’t any people to augment our team. With that in mind, I presented to the Chief of Staff our Can’t Do List. A list that clearly articulated the things we would no longer do. Though my team felt that to be a non-winning strategy, I was not surprised when he agreed that he would no longer expect our team to do the things highlighted on our Can’t Do List. More recently while in Command, I had Department Heads complain that their team was overworked and not performing their collective responsibilities as well as they had liked. They wanted to share their frustrations and make a plea for more resources. When I told them their team would not grow and asked them to first prioritize their department’s responsibilities and develop a Can’t Do List, they looked at me like I had three heads. They were too proud to admit there were things they couldn’t do. They were unwilling to let their team off the hook for anything. They couldn’t fathom properly managing my expectations. I left Command never getting that Can’t Do List. Unfortunate for all involved and most unfortunate for the leaders who couldn’t put their pride aside.

Can Do Lists have their place, but most of the time they are overly prescriptive. Consider your job description. I bet it tells you what you Can Do and is written in a way to limit your role. In the Culture Book I wrote with my team, I asked them to develop a Can Do List just to see where their head was on this subject. Not surprised, they came up with this…

You are allowed to:

  1. Make the decision you know to be right
  2. Start something that needs to be started to help advance the cause
  3. Participate and take a seat at the table while in a meeting (don’t stand in the back of the room)
  4. Ask for help whenever you want or need it
  5. Mentor others whenever you can (even if they don’t ask for it)
  6. Acknowledge your teammates for making a difference
  7. Take time off to do something that inspires, excites and energizes you

Most teams don’t approach Can Do Lists like that, but the team who wrote that wasn’t like most teams. Given that most teams will generate a very different Can Do List, I’d ask them to instead write a Can’t Do List that enables members to do anything that they are not specifically directed from not doing. The fact of the matter is that most leaders overly constrain individuals across their team from critically thinking, creatively solving problems, and being true owners of the outcomes generated.

  • What might a current version of your Can’t Do List look like?
  • How might you rewrite a position description that articulates the things you don’t want your teammates to do?
  • Are you comfortable writing one?