When "Can-do" culture morphs into "Must-do"
How culture moves subtly from positive to negative and what we can do to protect it. Lessons learned from the U.S. Navy.
Over the last month, I’ve spent hours reading about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If you’re interested, there are several independent analysts you can read: ISW, SJW, Oryx, and Covert Shores. Reading these posts has led me to learn how military leaders think about leadership. Many have highlighted President Zelensky’s charisma. A charismatic product manager is one much-discussed leadership style. Yet during my readings, I stumbled upon a more obscure discussion, about how the U.S. Navy’s “can-do” culture is morphing into a “must-do” tempo.
What testimony by an admiral in the U.S. Navy can teach product managers.
In 2017, a single, terse statement was issued by the U.S. Navy. It said.
Adm. Scott Swift, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, today relieved the commander of Seventh Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.
For reference, the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet is comprised of 27,000 sailors and marines, 50 - 70 ships, and 150 aircraft, and an officer, “relieved of command”, is the equivalent of being fired. Adm. Swift fired Vice Adm. Aucoin because of four incidents: the collision of USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) with an oil tanker, the collision of USS Fitzgerald with the MV ACX Crystal collision), the collision of USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) with a fishing vessel and the USS Antietam (CG-54) running aground in Tokyo Bay. These incidents caused over $500M+ in damages and the death of 17 sailors.
But it’s not the firing itself that’s relevant to our discussion. It was the exchange during a congressional hearing about the incidents, between Chief of Naval Operations Richardson and Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono. Video: Time @ 52:46.
Senator HIRONO: Admiral Richardson, you just said something really interesting, just now, that it is the responsibility of the commander to monitor the readiness of their ships to—readiness to deploy. So, are you saying that, if a commander says that his ship—his or her ship is not ready, will that result in nondeployment of that ship?
Admiral RICHARDSON: If we’re aware that a ship is not certified and ready to deploy, that ship should not deploy.
Senator HIRONO: You’re going to take that commander’s assessment of it. Is that how it works in the chain of command?
Admiral RICHARDSON: There’s also his immediate superior in command. There are several layers of people that are monitoring this. We don’t put it all on the commanding officer of the ship.
Senator HIRONO: But, I think that’s what you meant when you said that you would have to also change the culture? Because already you’re only able to meet 40 percent of the combatant commander’s request, so the culture issue is probably that everyone wants to meet the demands for deployment, and so the culture needs to be changed. That’s safety first. Is that what you meant when you said culture?
Admiral RICHARDSON: We completely agree with you, ma’am. We have a can-do culture. That’s what we do. Nobody wants to raise their hand and say ‘‘I can’t do the mission,’’ but it’s absolutely essential that, when those are the facts, we enable that report.
Senator HIRONO: So, now you’re going to institute a can-do-with safety-first culture.
Admiral RICHARDSON: Exactly.
You might wonder, how this exchange relates to Product Management. I took the liberty of making a few minor changes in the exchange [new words in brackets]. Imagine overhearing this conversation between a Founder/CEO and your CPO.
Founder/Executive: [Chief Product Officer], you just said something really interesting, just now, that it is the responsibility of the [product manager] to monitor the readiness of their [products teams] to—readiness to deploy. So, are you saying that, if a [product manager] says that his [product]—his or her [product] is not ready, will that result in nondeployment/[release] of that [product]?
Chief Product Officer: If we’re aware that a [product or feature] is not certified and ready to deploy, that [product or feature] should not deploy.
Founder: You’re going to take that [product manager’s] assessment of it. Is that how it works in the chain of command?
Chief Product Officer: There’s also his immediate superior in command. There are several layers of people that are monitoring this [such as Tech Leads, Engineering Managers, Deployment Managers]. We don’t put it all on the [product manager].
Founder: But, I think that’s what you meant when you said that you would have to also change the culture? Because already you’re only able to meet 40 percent of the [new feature] request, so the culture issue is probably that everyone wants to meet the demands for deployment/[release], and so the culture needs to be changed. That’s [quality] first. Is that what you meant when you said culture?
Chief Product Officer: We completely agree with you, ma’am. We have a can-do culture. That’s what we do. Nobody wants to raise their hand and say ‘‘I can’t do [it],’’ but it’s absolutely essential that, when those are the facts, we enable that report.
Founder: So, now you’re going to institute a can-do-with [quality]-first culture.
Chief Product Officer: Exactly.
No one dies
Obviously, comparing death and accidents at sea versus software product management and product quality isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Yet, in reading how military veterans responded to Admiral Richardson’s response, I couldn’t help but feel there are similarities.
Many current and former ship captains scoffed at what they saw as Richardson’s hypocrisy. In the real world of the Navy, a ship captain telling his command he couldn’t safely get underway is “impossible,” one former skipper said in an interview. No one believes there is a legitimate risk, only that the captain is failing to do what’s needed. “The subtext is that you’re a bad officer and probably a bad person too,” another officer said.
PMs as captain of the product ship.
Ben Horowitz defined good PMs as someone who “acts like and is viewed as CEO of the product”, who “ensure[s] that this vision becomes reality - whatever it takes.” In some organizations, PMs who voice concerns or question decisions are similarly put in an “impossible” situation.
A while back, I recall a conversation with a PM who had received some feedback that he needed to say yes more and find creative ways to “get to yes”. Echoing comments from Ben Horowitz's “Can do vs. Can’t Do”, the message was that by saying no, the PM was becoming known as a naysayer.
I had agreed at the time, but now realize I was wrong. I had yet to experience how a positive “can-do” attitude can be harnessed to transform a product organization into a dangerous “must-do” culture.
Can vs Must Do
“Can-do” culture involves key beliefs/attitudes by individuals working together. In the can-do culture, people believe:
Positive outcomes are possible
It’s possible to overcome/solve challenges and difficulties
Effort and hard work will result in positive results, achieved over time
No challenge too great, no mission can’t be accomplished. The “can-do” attitude is often thus associated with innovators, explorers, and entrepreneurs. It’s like the famous Bruce Lee saying:
While a can-do attitude is commendable, it’s easy for the unaware to have this positive attitude morph into a negative, must-do culture where:
Accomplishing the mission is paramount, no ifs or buts under any condition
Saying no is looked at negatively, which is negatively reflected upon the individual
Saying no is equivalent to having a can’t-do attitude
The identification of risks is a negative activity because of the negative association between risks and naysayers/can’t do
The transformation from can-do positive to can-do negative occurs when people start labeling other people, who with positive attitudes identify known issues and concerns because those concerns or issues are categorized as negatives.
When people start labeling other people as “cranks, naysayers, haters”, that’s when you have to watch out. When rules are put in place that people should only talk about issues when they also have a solution, the lines are starting to blur. It’s at this transition moment that an organization can be co-opted into must-do culture:
Excluding certain people and their ideas/concerns
Forcing people to pick sides: “Do you want to be part of the in-group or excluded?”
Rather than addressing issues or concerns identified, making personal or emotional appeals, or appeals to authority, divinity, or nature.
Steps to protecting a positive, can-do culture
Recognize a “can-do” attitude can be weaponized. Just as PMs often evaluate how a north star metric can be manipulated, a “can-do” attitude can also be gamed. For example, when people are publically labeled and divided between “can” or “can’t-do” and treated differently. These labels create divisions and instill tribalism cultures (in versus out groups). Another common way can-do attitude is manipulated is by calling out someone who identifies an issue without proposing a solution as a naysayer. Instead, invite the person who identified the issue in proposing solutions or jointly developing solutions.
Focus on the issue, not the individual. When people disagree personally, remind people of shared goals and shared values. If you don’t have shared goals and values, identify some and see if they can triumph over individual differences. If you can’t bring the conversation back to the issue, it’s hard to address a shared culture. Changing a person from can’t do to can-do often involves around identifying solutions to challenges and issues.
Setting up product principles (aka rules) that clearly protect against worst outcome situations. While I’ve written about the negatives of consensus-driven decisions in products, a consensus-driven approach is good at slowing down a decision when you want to prevent extreme outcomes. For example, maybe you don’t want your product to become a Nazi. In those cases, it’s good to put in place redundant reviews and approvals. In the case of preventing a must-do culture, a rule I consider good is practicing go/no go decisions where “no-go” outcomes are experienced in lower-risk projects. This accomplishes two things: temporarily stopping a project over a low-risk item and publically demonstrating the culture of “stoppage” for a good reason, which fights against a “must-do” culture.
In closing, a test you can easily conduct to see if you’re in a “must-do” culture. Ask a dozen people you work with and see if they can identify a project or initiative that was paused or stopped for a good reason, before continuing after the issue identified was resolved. Can they think of the person or project? How did people react to this pause? If after talking to 10+ individuals in different teams and you can’t identify one example, this probably signals some smoke for further investigation.
This article was made possible by a post I read discussing “Can-do” vs. “Must-do” in the U.S. Navy. However, I failed to save the link and could not find it again after several hours of searching. I believe it was a blog post called D. Information. Thus, if you happen to come across such an article, please let me know so I can give credit where it’s due.
Really love this Shaw. I liked the analogy of a conversation w.r.t product managers. I felt it exactly that while reading it. Thanks for sharing this. This really helps in building a good product manager if not the best 😊