Managing Change & Driving Innovation: Separating The Can’t From The Won’t

How many times have you heard one or more of the following statements:

  • “We can’t do that project”
  • “We can’t make the changes you’ve requested”
  • “We can’t meet the expectations you’ve set for our teams”


  • “That won’t work, we’ve tried it before”
  • “We won’t be able to meet the timelines requested”
  • “I won’t be able to improve quality until ________ happens”


As a leader, I’ve heard these statements and many others just like them. At times I was frustrated as they came off as focusing on the problem, not the solution. It felt like team members were setting aside opportunities to enhancing our services, and in turn improving our deliverables and impact. It also came across as a list of excuses, not a reasonable argument for what the roadblocks may be to success. It seemed like a vicious circle that unless properly addressed would simply roll from project to project.

Things had to change, and as the leader it was my responsibility to make that change.

What I came to realize is that the real issue wasn’t the “can’t” or “won’t” associated with the team response, but how I as leader communicated my expectations and how they communicated challenges in meeting those expectations. It was also about how well we really listened to one another and communicated.

Then it hit me, I needed to define the difference between “can’t” and “won’t” for myself and the team. Was the “can’t” associated with skill (knowledge), and the “won’t” associated with will (the willingness to take action)?

So here is what we came up with. It’s pretty simple and was successful in managing change and driving innovation within our team and organization.

Step One: Create common definitions of “can’t” vs. “won’t”.

For this first step, we agreed that anytime the term can’t or won’t was used we would dig deeper to determine the real issue associated.

In doing that we found out that in most circumstances the term “can’t” was related to a lack of skill, resources, tools, etc. Simply put can’t referred to tangible things missing from potential success.

Also, the term “won’t” typically was a matter of the will, fear, risk, etc. The person(s) involved just couldn’t bring themselves to do it, they were consciously (or subconsciously) unwilling to act.

 Step Two: Change the conversation of “can’t” vs. “won’t”.

One immediate change we made was to reframe our statements / concerns.

Here are a few examples:

  • “We will need more resources to be success with that project”
  • “We will need more time to make the changes you’ve requested”
  • “We will need better definition to meet the expectations you’ve set for our teams”


  • “That hasn’t previously worked (we’ve tried it before)”
  • “We are concerned about the timelines requested”
  • “I will be limited with getting started on quality improvement until ___ happens”


By making these simple changes we improved communication, understanding, trust and collaboration among team members. This approached also reduced my frustration with the seemingly endless list of perceived excuses (that were actually reasonable reasons and requests for help).

Step Three: Communicate, Listen, Practice – Practice – Practice!

As a team, we made a simple rule. Anytime the term “can’t or won’t” came up in conversations we took a pause to clarify, reframe and explore.

We did not allow the door to be closed so easily. We took the necessary time to fully understand the context of the concern and explore the opportunities.

Yes, meetings were a bit longer in the beginning, but when the team got in the habit of this approach the meetings actually got shorter and were more effective.  A win – win for all parties.

So here is your challenge.

  • Check your language – how often do you use “can’t or won’t” without providing the context to understand your position?
  • Reflect on past challenges – how often did “can’t and won’t” simply shut down conversation (and effective collaboration)?
  • Commit to change – for yourself and your team. What will your roadmap be to eliminate the “can’t and won’t” from team conversations?


Soon you’ll realize that you can accomplish great things and that more effective communication and collaboration will be the keys to your teams’ success.

Bill Shell, CPC |

Bill Shell, Business Strategist and Certified Professional Coach is CEO of Bill is passionate about the success of long term care and empowering leaders and teams to achieve success. He has over 30 years of experience in starting, growing and managing companies, organizations and leadership teams.