One word of advice you hear far too often trying to drive change is “don’t…” Both friends and foes are full of advice on what not to do.

Everyone wants to set boundaries on the actions of change agents. Your opponents will want to set a boundary that is short of your goal or fundamentally frustrates your path forward. Your allies will set boundaries to shape your actions to their needs, to constrain the threat of change and make change seem safer.

A prohibition like “don’t” sounds like a solid boundary. It may not be. When you hear “don’t”, ask yourself these questions:

  • Ask why? Are you being told “You cannot”, “You should not” or “Your action is inconvenient”? Getting to the point of the speaker will enable you to shape your next step.
  • If “Don’t” means “You cannot”, what would happen if you try anyway? Many barriers have been overcome by an open mind, persistence and experimentation.
  • If “Don’t” means “You should not”, seek to understand who is affected and what values are at stake. Too often the speaker is unclear. If so, clarify the issues with those affected. It may well be that others don’t share the speaker’s view or would be willing to compromise to see other values & outcomes achieved
  • If “Don’t” means “Your action is inconvenient”, acknowledge the inconvenience, mitigate where you can, but push on. Change inevitably includes some risk and inconvenience.
  • Most important of all, turn from the negative to the positive. Ask for advice on what you can and should do instead or in addition. Be open to new options, new ideas and include them in you consideration of new steps.

Helpful and unhelpful advice is everywhere for those driving change. Any advice including “don’t” needs careful scrutiny. It may not be either the advice or the obstacle that it purports to be.

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