The Difference Between ‘Can’ and ‘May’

What's the DifferenceThere’s a great scene in the movie Avalon where the young protagonist Michael (played by Elijah Wood) is in a classroom being taught the grammatical difference between the words “can” and “may.”

Teacher: “’Can’ is whether you’re capable of doing something. ‘May’ is asking for permission.”
Michael: raises his hand
Teacher: “Yes Michael?”
Michael: “Can I go to the bathroom?”
Teacher: “Michael, do you want to repeat that question?”
Michael: (under his breath) “Oh no, I’m going to be made an example of.”
Teacher: “Michael!”
Michael: “I said, can I go to the bathroom?”
Teacher: “You CAN but you MAY not.”
Michael: “Well, can I or can’t I?”
Teacher: “I don’t think you’ve been paying attention to this lesson, have you Michael Kay?”
Michael: “Well…yes I have.”
Teacher: “So how would you REPHRASE the question?”
Michael: “Can I PLEASE go to the bathroom?”
Teacher: “Michael Kay, why don’t you just spend some time in the hallway until you’ve learned the difference between ‘Can’ and ‘May.’

Isn’t that how we all feel some time? We’re asking for permission to do something we consider completely ordinary, something in the best interests of all concerned. But because we didn’t ask in the right way or because the powers that be don’t understand the feet on the ground simplicity and beneficence of our request, we’re asked to spend some time in the hallway contemplating our navels so to speak.

Much of our corporate creative innovative experience is echoed in this scene. Sometimes, we know how to innovate, we’re capable of innovating, we’re excited about innovating, we desperately want to innovate. But there are paradigms in place. Paradigms about how things are done, paradigms about ‘correct’ behavior, paradigms about creativity, paradigms about what’s valuable, paradigms about what’s worthwhile. Essentially, paradigms about whether you ‘may’ innovate.

Many people in leadership are so embedded in these paradigms that being allowed to innovate becomes first a challenge of whether you asked correctly or whether you can immediately prove the short term ROI or whether the internal political advantages are satisfied.

It really breaks down like this:

  1. You can not and you may not. In many companies, this is very often the case. The company just doesn’t have the creative skills to innovate because they’ve hired traditional people with traditional skills doing traditional tasks in traditional ways. And, they don’t recognize the need to innovate. They really just believe that ‘work more, work harder, work faster, work smarter’ will grow the company. They often give verbal validation to innovation but their real understanding of the discipline of innovation is limited or non-existent. In this case, innovation typically only occurs by happenstance.
  2. You can not but you may. In this scenario the company does recognize the value of innovation but they’ve failed to incorporate creativity and innovation into their culture. Leadership evangelizes the benefits of innovation but hasn’t hired for that skillset or hasn’t promoted its true value or hasn’t opened a path for it to succeed. Additionally it’s often true that the people in the company don’t really “get” innovation or, equally crippling, they’re not passionate about it (innovation requires passion!). Leadership has given them permission, even a mandate, but either they don’t know how or they don’t want to.
  3. You can but you may not. This is the most common situation. Most people with any intellectual temerity naturally have the desire to innovate. They really do. And many people have the skill, the drive, the passion. But ‘corporate’, ‘the business’, doesn’t understand or comprehend the value proposition inherent in innovation. Unbeknownst to them, they may be following a practice of “not innovating.” In this case, you are often told to “spend some time in the hallway until you’ve learned the difference between ‘Can’ and ‘May.’”
  4. You can and you may. Hooray! You know innovation. You’re creative and you understand the risks involved. And the rewards. And you’re passionate about it! You’re ready to approach new solutions with non-traditional methods, and… hooray! The powers that be are eager for you to jump in with both feet. And they mean it, they back you up, they encourage risk-taking and they demonstrate commitment to innovation. They reward excellent failures because they believe in you and your ability to learn from failures and apply lessons to new and exciting projects that generate successes.

Actually, there’s one more possibility.

You can and you must. Leadership not only supports innovation, they expect it, in fact, they demand it. This is the best scenario because there’s a recognition of the value of innovation. Not only do you have permission, you have a mandate. You have time, you have a budget, and the conversation comes naturally. Yes, it’s “outside the box” but it’s routinely so. It’s expected. In this case, it’s also a must that leadership understands innovation and is committed to it.

The challenge with developing an innovation culture is getting your team to ‘can’ and your leadership to ‘may.’ If you hire for ‘can’ and inspire for ‘may’, you’re well on the way to making innovation part of the everyday culture of your organization.


About Jeff

Leads Teams to Deliver Enterprise Technology Solutions | Mobile | Cloud | HTML 5 | Big Data | mHealth | Gamification | Realtime Analytics | Augmented Reality
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