Friday, June 29, 2012

Ask for Permission or Forgiveness

I recently had the opportunity to have a chat with a Senior Executive from a large software company when he asked me this question, "Are you one to ask for permission or forgiveness. Instinctively I responded, "It is easier to ask for forgiveness". After leaving that meeting on my drive home from Toronto I realized that the response I provided was a conditioned one. As I reflected on the question I started reconstructing why I responded the way I did.

  1. A CEO I know had made that statement many years ago during one of his speeches. "It is easier to ask for forgiveness that ask for permission". This statement was not without boundaries and the expectation that sound judgement and the best interest of the company would be part of the process.
  2. As this was a small/medium size organization the flexibility to work in an adhoc, in the heat of the moment, reactive style was acceptable
  3. This had become an acceptable norm within the organization

It was the rebuttal position of this software company Senior Executive that stuck with me, "You were fortunate that the choices you made had positive results, what if they didn't?"

As I continued to churn the question in my mind, I started thinking of those who ventured on the same path with different outcomes. Lack of experience at rolling the dice can lead to some overly risky choice that don't always pay off and can be very costly to the organization and the individual. A few actually lost their jobs as a result. 

A young lad who worked within a colleagues team had great success and was praised for his results but he took reserved risks as he began. Overtime the risk boundaries expanded and a costly mistake had a swift reprimand accompanied by a pink slip. The same CEO who made the statement, "It is easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission", made the decision to let the lad go.

In larger organizations where an eco-system of teams and departments must communicate effectively and deliver across an engagement or project or product life cycle, this strategy would not be so effective nor welcomed. Permission is not always relative to getting consent but also is an effective manner of notifying others and/or initiating a link within the entire process to achieve a desired end result.

The question of business ethics comes into play as well. Was permission not requested because it would not have been granted. I would like to believe that most individuals strive to do good and that this would not be a regular case but gets you thinking.

If asked the question again, I would respond differently after this realization. Sometimes you need to break the habit of auto-reponsing and really think about what your saying.

Learning from your mistakes is one positive way to grow as an individual. Thoughts to ponder!


  1. Cheryl Swanson's comment from LinkedIn • Good topic. It never deserves a blanket response. The magnitude of each decision's possible impacts is what determines which path to take. This isn't really a matter of 'easiness', as some things are unforgivable due to their magnitude of impacts. Permission is a respectful approach. Doing something for which you expect later to ask forgiveness is not, and most people with a highly developed conscience would consider that deeply in choosing an approach. These are some of the finer things that some of us evaluate in choosing friends, employers and business partners that we will allow to affect our lives. "He who forgets is destined to make the same mistake twice."

  2. Dan Lenehan's comment from LinkedIn • It’s a simplistic question. Real life isn’t all that black and white. It’s not always clear when you should make the decision on your own and when your manager should. Given the two choices though, I like your response. What's better, an individual that uses initiative or an individual who is constantly running back to management asking for direction?
    Managing the grey zone is the trick. If there is risk involved in the decision and potential downside impact beyond your job scope, then you need to inform management of the direction you are headed. Bring them a well thought out decision ready for ratification rather than dumping the whole issue in their lap.