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The NHS has got to be more focused on patient care. Teachers will have to try harder. Not long ago, town-hall budget cutbacks were not going to impact front-line services. And for years now the private sector has institutionalised ‘can-do’ as best practice: everyone’s got to accept greater responsibilities with fewer resources.

These days, however, ‘can-do’ is being stretched: from a key attribute in a job specification to a management call-to-arms. Now more than ever we need to revisit this approach and recognise it for what it has turned into: a management fad, which holds out the promise of success but often serves to paper over the cracks, or worse, exhorting people to change their attitudes while not equipping them with the other resources or levers needed to succeed.

Let us start with the positives: can-do holds the fort and when fear-driven – and it so often is – will pull rabbits out of hats in the face of impossible odds. Certainly, it places an emphasis on thinking for yourself at a time when everyone is looking for people to step up to the plate and take responsibility for their actions. As an approach it is the very opposite of ‘if that’s the way you want it’ resentment and is a sign of a well-motivated group at a time when stress levels are high and motivation is taking a hit. ‘Can-do’ can be hard to cultivate, too, especially in organisations where focus in the past has been on directive, command-and-control methods.

A can-do approach can come in various forms. Senior managers may wave its flag to rally colleagues to go the extra mile. Whereas corporate vigilantes may materialise, conscious of some threat and convinced that only they know what has to be done and have the extra stamina to do it. Then it demands a band of believers; not many perhaps but they will have to have the authority, formally appointed or energetically exercised, to take emergency measures.

For them, can-do is fun: it appeals to the action man in them, pumping up the adrenalin. It allows them to think that they are exerting some control over events and lends a flavour of superiority. For senior managers, when the pressure is on, being can-do can be a get-out-of-jail-free card where tasks are redefined tough but not impossible.

But – and this is a big but at a time when all of us are cutting costs and structures and are asking more of the survivors – can-do approaches to management will not suspend the laws of physics forever. It can mask the truth – the fragility of systems or of processes or of people – from those in position to remedy core problems. Indeed, it can even play to their desire not to know what is really happening in their organisation when they feel that core problems are insoluble.

Importantly, it takes little account of consequences other than those related to failure. Believers will drive activities, come hell or high water, set on hitting their targets, oblivious to what this may mean for others since, as far as their goals are concerned, there is no alternative.

It can damage morale: we have seen managers call for a can-do attitude only to lose the confidence and support of under-resourced, exhausted staff who have gone that extra mile once too often.

It is frequently a barrier to learning, especially when the important thing is to get the fire extinguished because you can already feel the heat from the next one. A can-do culture can mean that prevention and evidence are luxuries that we do not have time for. Over time there will be a price to pay. In the shorter term, it may be paid in staff turnover, absenteeism and stress across the organisation; in the longer term, the fire, which the band of heroes has repeatedly stamped on, will break out big-style.

Like it or not, though, can-do has got to take its place in the list of ‘emperor’s-new-clothes’ solutions. Rely on it as a strategy, and you are asking for trouble. It does not stand in for a plan.

I remember when Boards used to say ‘times are tough but good leadership will get us out of trouble’ when what they really meant was ‘we cannot see a way out of this; let’s hope the CEO can.’  Today the buck has been passed to can-do: with the right attitude, we can make the impossible probable.

And sometimes – rarely – you can. It goes wrong, though, when enthusiasm is not matched with skill. Or when ‘I expect you to get on with it‘ is an excuse for laissez-faire managers. Can-do only works when the guy waving the flag also carries the can for failure: urge people to try their damnedest, by all means; but when even that is not good enough, the responsibility does not lie with them, but with you.

Can-do may be a valuable attribute in most organisations but it must not be a sanction for firefighting to become the core competency.


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