18 February 2014

Forgiveness vs. Permission

It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission. -- Grace Hopper 
This phrase is oft-cited in the world of agility. Don't wait for permission to do something - just go do it! If someone complains after the fact, simply beg forgiveness. After all, the business will be better off owing to your initiative. Innovation doesn't come from committees, nor from the faint of heart who fear the consequences of action.

So, just freaking do it and sort out the problems while the dust settles.

We celebrate this brash entrepreneurial streak in western society as something to which we all should aspire. People like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson are held up as poster children for this attitude that rules are made to be broken! But for every Jobs and Branson, how many people are actually punished for their actions, their impudence, their insubordination?

I have been, and I probably will be again.

A number of times in my career I've taken that initiative because I felt that it was the right thing to do. I quietly gave some key users early access to a system in order to obtain feedback. I broke the corporate rules and set up a dial-in remote access box so that I could perform support & maintenance without having to waste time traveling from building to building. I've gone ahead and published no-so-great-news when it wasn't likely to be received well. I did those things because they were the right things to do in those situations.

In some cases, I was simply asked not to do it again (and quietly thanked). In another case, it contributed to me losing that job. And that's the key...
If you are going to simply do it and ask for forgiveness later, you had better be prepared for the repercussions.
If you rock the boat, you may indeed get the job done. You may indeed get information to those who need it when it would otherwise be hidden. You may also be called out as "not a team player". You may be ostracized by those who have a vested interest in the status quo. You may simply be punished because those in power don't know what you know! Regardless, there will be consequences to your actions.

Barry Schwartz gave this great TED talk a few years back called Our Loss of Wisdom:


In the end, which do you believe you should do? What's right, or what the rules say or what the cultural norms of your organization dictate? I was willing to accept the consequences of what I did because I knew that I was doing what was right. I'm also quite certain that I don't fit very well in organizational cultures where you're expected to say only good news and "toe the party line".

So, if you feel the need to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, good on you! Just be sure you realize that such actions have consequences.

2 comments:

Tim Ottinger said...

"You may also be called out as "not a team player". You may be ostracized by those who have a vested interest in the status quo. You may simply be punished because those in power don't know what you know!."

And maybe, just maybe, you can be wrong.

Again, it stands: you have to be at a point of responsibility, where you are ready to own your consequences whatever they may be.

It's good to be bold, and to light an occasional fuse or kick over an idol. It's also good to work well in a system.

Whichever way you go, OWNING IT is crucial.

Andrew Phelps said...

his seems to be a bit of an extreme case study!

I would never encourage folks to break the rules or do something stupid and put the corporate assets at risk which this chap seems to have done. Forgiveness vs Permission is more a mind-set. It means, "ask yourself if your management team have already given you tacit permission, have they said in broad terms that they would approve of the thing you're thinking of doing?"

For example: A technical director/manager has made it very clear that they highly value quality in software engineering. If you were to find a testing tool that helps with this do you need to ask permission to try it out? Do you need permission to use it in production code? Would they tell you off for doing this?

Adopting agile gives us a mandate to continually self improve, we don't need permission for this. We do need to think about what we do and be careful not to break rules that are there for a reason.

Forgiveness vs Permission isn't a mandate for a free-for-all, it's a behaviour pattern that embraces empowerment.