Ask for Permission, or for Forgiveness?

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
–Grace Hopper






My team is continuing to work hard on our strategy development.  As I mentioned in a previous blog entry (Peeling the Infinite Onion), we’re working multiple activities concurrently that will lead to interdependent results, all of which leads to a strategy that must meet the approval of a key executive at NASA Headquarters.  One of my subteams is tackling a particular challenging yet important element of our strategy.  For a few weeks we’ve been consulting with external support organizations and individual experts, and discovering new information and perspectives.  Yet throughout this process, we encountered repeatedly that no matter what approach we propose, we must meet the approval of the key executive.

I asked my external support organization, “What is required to get his approval?”  I got responses along the lines that a fully explained rationale and justification is expected.  “OK, tell me more…”  I never got a satisfactory answer: in several cases, my support people resorted to “guessing’ what the key executive would like and not like.  Earlier this week, I felt that I had exhausted the information and experience of my support organization, putting me in a difficult position: what do I do next?

I decided to go straight to the source and ask the executive directly.

I chose to operate at the highest level of empowerment: Act, then Advise.  My organization’s leadership has entrusted me with leading this team in its work, and therefore has given me great latitude to find the best path.  Therefore I chose to act by asking my questions directly of the key executive, followed by a courtesy note to my organization’s leadership that I had done so.  Sometimes I’ve heard this level of empowerment referred to as, “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

I also considered the option to act at a slightly lower level of empowerment: Recommend, then Act.  This level is usually appropriate for unusual actions, either inherent in the nature of the action itself or due to an unusual interface, such as short-circuiting normal organizational chains of command (except when warranted for safety, for example).  In my case, the key executive will be to whom I will be presenting my team’s strategy in a few months.  From an organizational hierarchical standpoint, the key executive is about 2 levels above me.  Former NASA Associate Administrator Scott Pace reinforced in me the concept that successful leadership in an individual requires that person to be comfortable interacting with leadership 2 levels above.  For all of these reasons, I decided to operate at the higher level of empowerment and not to “ask for permission.”  I believe that if I would have asked my external support organization for advice, they would have recommended that I work my request through their chain of command.  I chose not to seek their advice.  I felt I had the authority and pressing immediacy of need to act now.

The next two levels are not empowering: they are imprisoning, and unfortunately I see them too often in individuals and organizations around me: Ask What To Do.  I don’t know if this is due to inadequate training, organizational cultures, or poor leadership, yet I believe that individuals and organizations who operate primarily at this level, or leaders who insist that their people operate at this level, are doomed to be failing organizations.

Finally, the bottom level: Do Nothing Until Told.  This is clearly a route to failure.

When I operated at the highest level in this particular case, the response I got from the key executive was prompt and extremely helpful – even surpassing my expectations.  I doubt I would have achieved similar satisfaction if I would have chosen to operate at one of the lower levels.


Ask for Permission, or for Forgiveness?