Jonathan Cutrell

Won't and Can't


If you are a beginner manager, you will get a ton of advice for how to manage teams, and probably just as much about how to manage individuals.

A lot of it will be paper-thin opinions; much will be useful in certain scenarios.

Then other advice you will receive is irrefutably true. It's not so much advice as it is logical explanations. I hope this fits in that category for you.

This advice is targeted primarily at the individual, though some form of it could be applicable to abstract entities like teams or companies.

(By the way, I can't take credit for the origination of this idea; that credit belongs to Andy Grove.)

If you take nothing else away from this post, let it be this:

If you want someone to do something they aren't doing, there can only be two reasons: they can't, or they won't.

These are not mutually exclusive; sometimes they can, but they won't. Sometimes they can't, but they would if they could.

Sometimes they can't and won't.

Regardless of the person or circumstance, one of these must be true if they are not performing some behavior.

Andy Grove then goes on to say that the only responsibilities of the manager, then, are to train (alleviate "can't") and motivate (alleviate "won't").

What "Can't" means

If you want someone to perform a particular role, they may be incapable of doing that regardless of the motivation to do so.

Some things are universally impossible. "Be two places at once." Other things are individually impossible. (For me, being bad at basketball is simply a physical reality.)

Importantly, "can't" isn't always a dead end. For most business applications, "can't" can be solved given the right resource allocation. Time and money towards training, for example.

Focus on the real can't. "I can't manage that server" may actually be "I'm not confident enough to manage that server." Training in this case is less about teaching the person something they don't know, and more about helping them discover a self-confidence they didn't have before.

Importantly, do not discriminate against different flavors of "can't." For example, if someone's anxiety prevents them from speaking in public, that's as much of a valid "can't" as someone who is physically incapable of speaking. Your job isn't to rate the "can't" on its validity - that's discrimination. Instead, your job is to determine if the "can't" can be overcome.

What "Won't" means

This one is tricky.

When we hear "won't", we hear obstinance. Refusal. Active disdain. We hear someone who is unwilling.

That is usually only a small portion of the population of won'ts.

Won't more often is attached to the environment of motivation:

  • Lack of clarity of the desired action
  • Lack of knowledge of the desired action
  • Lack of recognition of their suitability to perform the desired action
  • Lack of understanding of the stakes (both positive and negative) attached to the desired action
  • Competing interests with more powerful incentives
  • Sludge / friction that make the cost to achieve the incentive too high, or create inertia

It's important to understand that most people are not actively against something you want them to do. If they are, that fits in this category as well, and may still be a problem of motivation!

The plight of the assumer

Too often, managers assume reports know what they want. They expect that a report knows to deliver work at some specific cadence. That their engineer knows to deliver a certain test coverage standard. The assuming manager will constantly have issues of performance management.

Usually these people bemoan behind closed doors that their engineers "just don't have what it takes." This ethereal "what it takes" criteria will make hiring and scaling your engineering org an absolute disaster.

"They have what it takes" is more often a heuristic for "I don't have to do as much work to define the expectations I have for them."

If instead you want to make the most of your opportunity as a manager, seek clarity. Be clear about what you want your reports to do, and why you think they should do it.

If you are bringing this to them with empathy, it will sound like an opportunity. If you are bringing it to them from a position of power, it will sound like a threat. (Guess which one works in the long run.)

You are probably reading this because you "have what it takes." You intrinsically hold yourself to a standard that you believe is higher than the standard of others.

Until you can let go of your own standard as a "global" standard, you will struggle to hire, retain, and grow anyone who isn't like you.

Ask yourself: what would it look like to hire someone who doesn't think the way I do?

What would I have to do to support someone who isn't strongly self-motivated? Do I have the clarity to explain what I want, and to create the right incentive structures to motivate someone like that?

Motivate and Train

If you are not finding yourself often returning to the themes of motivation and training, you are probably leaving behind some of your reports. You may not see the problems right away, but eventually you will have a performance issue that you'll have to solve reactively.

Be proactive about motivation and training. Help your reports exceed, rather than meet, the expectations you are setting. Get ahead of the ball.

Written by Jonathan Cutrell, Engineering Manager at Guild Education and podcast host at Developer Tea. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcutrell.