Asking for forgiveness instead of permission?

Jan 27 2011 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

When you've written about management as long as I have you know every cliché. They all have an element of truth. After all, that's how they became clichés. If they weren't true they would be spoken, die and replaced with something more practical in a heartbeat.

Lately, though, I've been examining some of them. I realize that, while true, many of them are lacking practicality. Take one that I've spewed on more than one occasion: 'tis better to ask forgiveness than permission.

We all know what it means. If you believe you're right, take bold action rather than wait for those in power to get around to allow you to do something you know you should do. Usually they wait so long that any benefit of the action is long gone by the time you get around to it.

The problem is that weasels like me are around at the instigation but never have to help you with the tough part - explaining to the powers that be why you did what you did.

We consultants, writers and the like are just like that kid in Cub Scouts who told you that umbrella would hold you if you jumped off the garage roof. We experience the thrill of someone doing what we say, but don't have to look your Dad in the eye when you try to explain the sneaker-sized dent in the Honda.

It's the same thing with asking forgiveness rather than permission: everyone wants to be part of the jolly rebel band that takes action, but no one volunteers to go into the boss' office with you to explain exactly why you did what you did.

It's easy to forgo asking permission – It's a sin of omission. Because I'm your humble servant, I'm going to do you a huge favor and tell you how to have the much harder conversation. Here are some tips for asking forgiveness.

This is not as easy as it sounds. If you sound defensive you give all the power to the very people who attempted to frustrate your plans in the first place. You could burst into tears like John Boehner at an onion chopping competition but that won't do anything for your credibility. Whining is a time honored tradition but seldom does anything more than irritate the very person whose buy-in you need most.

Nope, you need to have a game plan and some verbiage. Here you go.

"Our mission statement says we're an empowered workforce." Most managers tell you they expect you to be empowered to make decisions on your own. What they usually mean is "you're empowered to do the work you always do without bothering me, but for the love of Tom Peters don't actually CHANGE anything."

By claiming empowerment you'll force them to either grin and bear it, or they'll have to finally spell out exactly what the limits of your power are. This, by the way is a kissing cousin to "buy you said not to bring you problems, but solutions." Put the onus of supporting empty promises where it belongs.

"We wanted proof of concept so you could take it upstairs." This one has two advantages. First, it's true. You had every intention of having it be a raging success before you had to tell them what you did. Secondly, it positions them as your champion. Rather than explain what the heck you're up to and why you're blowing out your budget, they have a fait a complit. They can either admit they had no idea what you were up to, or they can take credit for your success. Which do you think they'll do?

"What part of early and under budget are you upset about?" This requires a lot of nerve and even more Excel files. If you ran over budget or bypassed a rule, it's in your best interest to have your numbers in order. How much money did you save on travel by using those webinars? How much more productive was your team by using Skype despite the tut-tuts of IT? Document, document, document. Just the fact that you have numbers to present lessens the chances of anyone actually looking at them.

"We took an Agile/SkunkWorks approach to the problem". If he or she is over 50, all you have to do to get them to practically genuflect in reverence is mention SkunkWorks (look it up). Few really understand what the Skunk Works did, how it operated or whether it worked or not. What they know is that all the smart people in the '80s wrote about it so it must be good.

If they're under 50, say it's Agile. This won't work if your boss either worked at Lockheed Martin or has actually managed an Agile project. Play the odds.

As someone who spent a large chunk of my career chafing at rules and finding short cuts, I can attest to their effectiveness. Of course this advice does not apply to my spouse, child or employees. Maybe it's time to examine another cliché: Do as I say, not as I do.

more articles

About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.