Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are

This quote, often falsely attributed to Theodore Roosevelt (see Sue Brewton’s blog), is an excellent mantra for both personal and management use.

Too often when facing a problem or a challenge, individuals tend to push it to others, to complain about their insufficient resources and have great ideas for others instead. Think about the latest cost reduction program for instance.

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With the “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are” mantra in mind when facing a problem or a challenge, the right approach should be:

  • What can I do by myself? What is in my hand? What actions are within my scope of authority / autonomy, what can I decide / engage / implement by myself?
  • With the means at my disposal, what can I do? How far can I go and is it enough to achieve the goal? What do I really need more to achieve the goal?
  • From my position in the organization, what can I do? What can I decide? What can I influence?

Here are 3 situations the mantra can be great for.

1. Facing one’s fears

These questions should be part of a personal routine and a mental checklist. Especially when facing a scary or challenging situation, going through the questions shifts the focus from emotional perceptions to factual assessment.

There is probably more that can be done than instinctively perceived, so in order not to give up too fast, remembering the mantra guides to an inventory of possible options.

We could double the mantra by another maxim I’ve found in General George S. Patton’s memoirs: “Do not take counsel of your fears.”

2. Facing the boss

When discussing a problem or a challenge with the boss, the quick inventory of personal possibilities avoids disappointing him/her with a list of reasons why the problem is very tough to solve or the goal out of reach, with request for more means or with suggestions for others to act instead.

Only when one’s capabilities, available means or one’s position in the organization are truly insufficient to solve the problem or achieve the goal, the limitations of all possible current options should be fed back to the boss.

3. Facing subordinates

On the other side a manager who sees a direct report trying to escape his/her duty, demanding more resources or offering great ideas for others, the rephrasing is easy:

  • I ask YOU to do what YOU can do
  • I ask YOU to do with the resources YOU have
  • I ask YOU to consider the options YOU have from YOUr position in YOUr perimeter

Conclusion

“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are” is easy to remember, holds a lot of calm confidence and wisdom and can come handy in several situations.

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