Can’t Versus Won’t

"Can't versus won't" by Greg Alder

We ran a design contest recently on 99 Designs. For those of you unfamiliar with 99 Designs, it is an online freelance network on which you post a brief and designers around the world submit designs. ODesk and Elance are similar. Contests via these websites are a good way to get a design done when budget is tight.

The contest process is simple. We received nearly 100 designs, amongst which were quite a few strikingly original ideas.

So far so good.

The way the contest runs is that you have to choose a maximum of six finalists to progress to stage two.

With 100 designs displayed over 3 pages, selecting the final six can be a tricky process. You think you have your six, and then you realise that there’s a design on page 3 that you really want to include. This sends you back to pages 1 and 2 to decide which design will have to get the chop.

The chances of making a mistake are high – as we discovered.

A nanosecond after making the selection of six finalists, we realised that one of our favourite designs wasn’t included. This was a design unlike every other one of the designs received. The designer approached the brief from a unique perspective.

We searched for a Revise Selection button. There wasn’t one.

We really wanted the omitted design included in the final six, so we called 99 Designs. We explained our mistake.

The consultant was very polite. He said that this had happened quite a few times in the past. However, he said that the contest rules couldn’t be changed.

He finished with a reassuring, “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get a great design from the designers you have selected.”

This got me thinking.

The thing about rules is that they’re not a fact of nature. Rules are created by people.

Most rules are sensible. Even this one created by the folks at 99 Designs is sensible. You can’t tell a designer that he or she is in the finals and then say, “Oh, sorry. My mistake. You’re not one of our final six after all.”

So here’s a suggestion for 99 Designs. When a client has made a mistake and omitted a designer, there is another solution. It is this: You allow a client to have seven finalists.

In the film This Is Spinal Tap, the volume control that normally goes from zero to 10 was changed to go up to 11. It wasn’t difficult.

People set rules. People can change rules.

It really comes down to customer relationship management. It isn’t that 99 Designs can’t change the rules. It is that they won’t change the rules.

The best companies understand it. They train their staff to understand it. They show flexibility. An example: If you’re about to buy a product and the sales assistant knows that the item will be reduced by 25% in a sale that starts tomorrow, he or she will give you the item at the discounted price.

Not only do you save money, but you leave with a sense of good will towards the assistant and the store. You tell your friends about how you bought it at the sale price, even though the sale hadn’t started. Now they too have a positive feeling towards the store – even though they haven’t purchased anything.

Guess where they’ll go when they are ready to buy.

Some companies (and some people) have a can’t mentality. And when they say they can’t, what they really mean is that they won’t.

4 replies on “Can’t Versus Won’t”
  1. says: Graeme

    Greg, couldn’t agree more. Way too may “Can’ts” in the world! The good companies can spot a “can’t” and remove him/her from the business. Its these companies that succeed!

  2. says: Ben Ball

    I have another suggestion. One developed over almost 60 years of living under rules, making rules as a parent, making rules as a business owner and general every day living.

    Don’t make rules. At least, not until you have REALLY thought through how important it is to you to enforce that rule. Because the first time you don’t enforce it — or amend it to fit a specific situation such as Greg’s — the rule is forever moot. There is in effect no rule. It is whatever you decide to do in any given situation to appease whomever you decide deserves appeasing. That is not a “rule” — that is a control mechanism.

    Children in particular are subject to the vagaries of “rules”. And they learn quickly through testing that parents make rules they aren’t willing to enforce. My own children’s mother was a rampant rule maker. Everything was a “rule” — with dire consequences promised to all who dared even “stretch it”. But what they learned is that Mom’s rules carried a penalty of much yelling and threat — but no actual consequence. Mom’s rules quickly became moot.

    Mom, and others in both families, often criticized me for not making rules or backing up Mom’s rules. I made it clear to all that I didn’t make any rules — as a rule. And that when I did, I meant them. Result? My kids to this day call me “Old One Chance”. They knew well that when I finally said “don’t do that” there would be no more warnings — only swift action.

    Since I knew myself well enough to know that I would hate to enforce any rule — I didn’t make one unless it was absolutely necessary.

    So my advice — don’t make rules. Not unless a “rule” is absolutely required. And once you make it, enforce it. Every time. Even handedly and with an open ear to why your rule may not be the wisest idea. Because you can credibly make or rescind rules when your enforcement is absolute. But it is very, very hard to maintain any sort of credibility with those you wish to comply if you “change/bend/amend the rule” to fit circumstance.

    1. says: Greg Alder

      Ben, you’re a very special man. If I’d known your attitude to rules, I’d have asked you to adopt me years ago.

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