“That Won’t Work!”

Imagine the scene: Several people are discussing a problem that needs an urgent solution. Everyone is deep in thought, and one person proposes a solution. “We could…” and everyone listens intently. As soon as the person is done talking, or perhaps even before, somebody speaks up. “That won’t work!” he says. The Solution Proposer is stymied, and the group is no closer to a solution that they were before.

In any group, there can be one person who frequently interjects with such a phrase. Have you been in such a situation? What can be done about it?

In this post my goal is to explore three things:

  • Why “That won’t work!” comes up to begin with
  • Why “That won’t work!” is useless and destructive when it comes to problem solving
  • How to turn the “That won’t work!” person into a productive member of society

Why “That won’t work!” comes up to begin with

When a group is trying to solve a complex problem, it is likely that not all members of the group knows all of the nuances of the system being examined. The problem is that they don’t know what they don’t know, to get all Donald Rumsfeld about it. As a result they are overconfident, and feel that their own opinion and analysis are perhaps even more important than that of others in the group.

This blissful ignorance, complimented by an overzealousness for being helpful and further coupled with a smattering of arrogance is enough to turn anybody into the “That won’t work!” person. I am of course describing a younger version of myself. So I suppose in that sense this post is a bit of a confessional!

The Destructive Nature of “That won’t work!”

Let’s revisit the example given at the beginning of this post. Everyone is deep in thought, and The Solution Proposer speaks up. “We could do this and that…” and everyone listens intently except for one. Two thirds through the explanation of the idea, the Exception speaks up. “That won’t work!” he says. The Solution Proposer has been shot down by the Exception before they were even able to finish expressing their thought. Back to square one.

Let’s say that The Solution Proposer’s idea was no good and that the Exception was correct: There’s no way that would have worked. Why can we say that their “That won’t work!” was destructive to the problem solving process?

Imagine that The Solution Proposer been allowed to finish proposing their idea. To others in the group, this idea does not sound plausible. Even so, it sparks a thought with another person. The Solution Finder’s face brightens and he speaks up. “That might not work in this situation, that’s true. But what if we flipped it around and did that and this instead?” The discussion lights up with ideas based on new thought, and before long group has agreed on a solution that was inspired by incorrect solution proposal. The Solution Proposer and The Solution Finder are both equally edified by their role in solving the problem and everyone feels great about their work. What about the Exception? He kept his negativity to himself and has since learned something.

Turning Negativity into Productivity

Now that it’s clear that the “It won’t work!” mentality is negative, destructive, and overall just soul destroying, let’s talk about how we can turn things around and help the TWWP (“That Won’t Work” Person) become a productive team member.

If you work with a TWWP, be patient. It’s quite likely that TWWP has no idea how badly they’re affecting things. Remember: one of the reasons they are the TWWP is that they are unaware of their limitations, and furthermore they are unaware that even wrong solutions can be turned into workable solutions with some creativity. So it’s on you and I to help them see this. The best way is simple: Lead by example! When TWWP proposes a solution that isn’t workable, teach them the correct response. What is the correct response, you ask? More on that in a moment.

If leading by example doesn’t work, and you are in the position to do so, you can redirect TWWP with a simple phrase such “That’s true, that solution might not work. But we can figure that out easily enough. I’m more interested in hearing what will work.” When said kindly, such an approach can be quite effective. If you use it to embarrass or otherwise shoot down TWWP however, you’ll negate any positive effects it can have.

From TWWP to The Solution Finder

If You are the TWWP, then you have a more difficult task. The first thing you need to do is spend more time listening. Realize that while your opinion is valuable, you need to take a step back and spend more time analyzing the problems at hand. “That won’t work” is generally the result of jumping to conclusions. Don’t do that.

Even if you’re right, you’re wrong. You’re hurting the creativity of others by introducing needless negativity. How can you keep things positive? Consider the incorrect solution, and unless you can come up with something better, say nothing at all.

If you can come up with something better, then you have an opportunity to be The Solution Finder. How can you propose your solution without shooting The Solution Proposer down? Phrase your solution like so:

“That would likely work if…”

Yep that’s it. Replace “That won’t work!” with “That would likely work if…”. And if you can’t do that, then keep listening. Sit back and observe the group, listen to others propose ideas, and see if something sparks a thought. If not, then maybe a solution isn’t readily available and more work needs to be done.

A Practical Example

A Long Time Ago, in a self-built and hosted Data Center at my first hosting job. It was about 2001 or 2002. Our servers were ATX 4U 19″ rack mount cases with commodity hardware, which at the time was probably a Pentium II 300mhz with 64mb of memory. The 1.1GB hard drives were ran through a PCI SCSI controller. Backups were done on-server with an IDE hard drive on the first IDE channel, and the second IDE channel was unused. The servers ran Red Hat Linux (version 4 or 5 at the time, I think).

MySQL had only recently been requested by our customers, and it was simple to install on the servers. As adoption picked up, we found that we had a problem. The servers were getting slower and slower as more customers requested MySQL databases and put them to work. The reason: Throughput. The disks were so busy with MySQL that they weren’t able to keep up with serving websites and email.

I was in my early 20’s at the time, and I recall standing in the server room with the company’s owner, a man about 15 years my senior, and a senior administrator who was closer to 30 years my senior. Intelligent, experienced men. Me? Not so much.

We all proposed solutions that were unworkable. Should we add a powerful MySQL server to the network and make customers connect to it over TCP/IP? No, that would mean adding more networking gear, cost, and complication. What about faster SCSI drives? Expensive. What about putting /var/lib/mysql on the IDE backup drive? Not enough throughput while doing backups, and, uh… no backups of databases. Right.

Rather than any one person shooting down the others’ unworkable solutions, we discovered the constraints of our problem. Learning more about the problem was vital. It sparked a thought, and I spoke up.

“Why don’t we add an extra IDE drive on the unused IDE channel and mount it on /var/lib/mysql? They’re cheap and we have room in the case.”

Rather than jumping to any conclusions, we examined the idea as a group and determined that the solution was worth testing. After trying it on two of our most problematic servers, we found that the solution worked!

We added cheap IDE disks to all of our servers without negatively impacting anything else, and the problem was permanently solved. What’s more, we all felt great about coming to a solution together. It’s been a solid 20 years since that happened, and I still remember the elation that came with becoming a more valuable member of the team.

In Conclusion

Identifying things that won’t work is easy, and it takes no special skill to do it. Solutions on the other hand take a lot more effort. So focus on what will work instead. That is far more valuable and useful!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. I’d love to hear your comments, solutions, and your war stories in the comments below. And if you happen to disagree with my take on this, by all means tell me. Just don’t say “That won’t work!”

7 thoughts on ““That Won’t Work!”

  1. You described the normal process in any professional environment since decades. Why did you feel this thought was worth writing up?

    1. Thank you for your comment! At the outset I confessed that at one point, I was a TWWP. The example was given that highlighted the correct process without the unnecessary and “That won’t work!” being interjected. It was a growth moment for me- transitioning from the TWWP to a productive member of the team.

    2. What a crass comment. Who decides what’s worth posting and what isn’t?

      It’s Ryan’s personal blog and they can decide whatever the hell they want to post.

      If you felt the post wasn’t worth writing, why not just ignore it?

  2. Interesting article. Me myself being often TWWP, it gives me some more hints how to deal with it.

    But one thing is a bit unclear to me. If there’s a real issue, and the solution is needed, and yet only the incorrect one is proposed (which will not work because of some factual thing) – somebody should explain the issue with proposed solution before days are spent implementing it? Even if I don’t have better idea/solution? I mean the situation when nobody else does see the issue with the proposed solution and the group is basically agreeing to proceed with it.

    I guess I will be still TWWP in such case, but I definitely should work on my wording a lot, and try to phrase it in more positive way, like “that would work if …” or something.

    1. Hey, thanks for the comment.

      The main point of the article is to help you to avoid being the person who shoots down every solution without justification. At the same time, there are definitely solutions that simply won’t work, and perhaps you’re the only one that realizes that there’s a problem.

      In this case it is often tactful to just say something like “May I ask a question? I’m trying to understand how $ProposedSolution will avoid a conflict with $ShowStopper. It seems to me like it would keep it from working.” This way you raise your question without calling anyone out on it, but also get people to think further about the solution. And there’s also a chance that you’re wrong, and so it gives you the opportunity to learn.

      Lastly, even if you’re right, it falls on deaf ears and then the only thing left to do is go with the flow and help the team learn the hard way why something won’t work. Those times are frustrating, but sometimes unavoidable.


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