Remember that the race does not always go to the just; however not running will ensure that you can't win. Don’t let your words keep you from running the race.

Remember that the race does not always go to the just; however not running will ensure that you can’t win. Don’t let your words keep you from running the race.

Words have power,when used correctly — the power to sell ideas, to rally the troops and to provide motivation. Or words can be a tactic signal of resistance to change and an abrogation of responsibility.  In the later set of scenarios, perfectly good words go bad.  I want to highlight three words, which when used to declare that action won’t be taken or as a tool to deny responsibility for taking action, might as well be swear words.  The words, in my opinion, that are the worst offenders are ‘but’, ‘can’t’ and ‘however’.  The use of any of these three words should send up a red flag that a course is being charted to a special process improvement hell for an organization.


The ugliest word in the process improvement world, at least in the English language, is ‘but’ (not but with two t’s).  ‘But’ is a fairly innocuous word, so why do I relegate it to such an august spot on my bad words list?  Because the term is usually used to explain why the speaker (even though they know better) can’t or won’t fight for what is right.  As an example, I recently participated in a discussion about involving the business as an equal partner in a project (a fairly typical discussion for an organization that is transitioning to Agile).  Everyone involved thought that the concept was important, made sense and would help the IT department deliver more value to the organization, ‘but’ in their opinion, the business would not be interested in participating.  Not that anyone would actually discuss having the business be involved with them or invite them to the project party.  A quick probe exposed excuses like “but they do not have time, so we won’t ask” and the infamous, “but that isn’t how we do it here.”  All of the reasons why they would not participate were rationalizations, intellectual smoke screens, for not taking the more difficult steps of asking the business to participate in the process of delivering projects.  It was too frightening to ask and risk rejection, or worse yet acceptance, then have to cede informational power through knowledge sharing.  The use of the word ‘but’ is used to negate anything out of ordinary which gives the speaker permission to not get involved in rectifying the problem.  By not working to fix the problem, the consequences belong to someone else.


A related negation word is ‘can’t’. ‘Can’t’ is generally a more personal negation word than ‘but.’ Examples of usage include ‘I can’t’ or ‘we can’t’. Generally this bad word is used to explain why someone or some group lacks specific power to take action.  Again like ‘but’, ‘can’t’ is used to negate what the person using the word admits is a good idea.  The use of the term reflects an abrogation of responsibility and shifts the responsibility elsewhere. For example, I was discussing daily standups with a colleague recently.  He told me a story about a team that had stopped doing daily stand-up meetings because the product owner deemed them overhead.  He quoted the Scrum Master as saying, “It is not my fault that we can’t do stand-ups because our product owner doesn’t think meetings are valuable.” In short he is saying, “It isn’t my fault that the team is not in control of how the work is being done.”  The abrogation of responsibility for the consequences of the team’s actions is what makes ‘can’t’ into a bad word in this example.  ‘Can’t’ reinforces the head-trash which steals power from the practitioner that makes it easy to walk away from the struggle to change rather than looking for a way to embrace change.  When you empower someone else to manage your behavior, you are reinforcing your lack of power and reducing your motivation and the motivation of those around you.


The third of this unholy trinity of negation words is ‘however’.  The struggle I have with this word is that it can be used insidiously to reflect a false use of logic to cut off debate.  A number of years ago, while reviewing an organization that decided to use Scrum and two-week iterations for projects, I was told, “we started involving the team in planning what was going to be done during the iterations, however they were not getting the work done fast enough, so we decided to tell them what they needed to do each iteration.”  The use of ‘however’ suggests a cause-and-effect relationship that may or may not be true and tends to deflect discussion from the root cause of the problem. The conversation went on for some period of time during which we came to the conclusion that by telling them what to do, the project had actually fared even worse.  What occurred was that the responsibility had been shifted away from poor portfolio planning onto the team’s shoulders.

In past essays I have discussed that our choices sometimes rob us of positional power.  The rationalization of those individual choices acts as an intellectual smokescreen to make us feel better about our lack of power. Rationalization provides a platform to keep a clinical distance from the problem. Rationalization can be a tool to avoid the passion and energy needed to generate change.

All of these unholy words can be used for good, and that it might be useful to have more instructions on how to recognize when they are be used in a bad way. A sort of a field guide to avoid mistaken recognition.  One easy mechanism for recognizing a poor use of ‘but’, ‘can’t’ and ‘however’ is to break the sentence or statement into three parts, everything before the unholy word, the unholy word and then everything after the unholy word.  By looking at the phrase that follows our unholy word all is exposed.  If the phrase rejects or explains why original and perfectly reasonable premise is bat poop crazy, then you have a problem.  I decided to spend some of my ample time in airports collecting observations of some of the negation phrases people use.  Some of shareable the examples I heard included:

  1. I told you so.
  2. It is not my fault.
  3. Just forget it.
  4. We tried that before.
  5. That will take too long.
  6. It doesn’t matter (passive aggressive).
  7. We don’t do it that way.
  8. My manager won’t go for it.

There were others that I heard that can’t be shared, and I am sure there are many other phrases that can be used to lull the listener into thinking that the speaker agrees and then pulls the rug out from the listener.

The use of negation words can be a sign that you are trying to absolve yourself from the risk of action.  I would like to suggest we ban the use of these three process improvement swear words and substitute enabling phrases such as “and while it might be difficult, here is what I am going to do about it.”  Our goal should be to act on problems that are blockers and issues rather than to ignore them or by doing that establishing  their reality by saying grace over them.  In my opinion, acting and failing is a far better course of action than doing nothing at all and putting your head in the sand.  The responsibility to act does not go away but rather affixes more firmly to those who do nothing than to those that are trying to change the world!  When you pretend to not have power you become a victim.  Victims continually cede their personal and positional power to those around them.  Remember that the race does not always go to the just; however not running will ensure that you can’t win. Don’t let your words keep you from running the race.