How to know when to 'ask forgiveness not permission' is the best strategy for you

When you work for a boss or in an organizational culture that isn’t always receptive to your social responsibility and sustainability ideas, you may find yourself wondering if it could be easier to adopt the strategy of ask for forgiveness rather than permission. 

Those firmly entrenched in the innovation camp would say, ‘of course you should go for it. It’s the only way meaningful change happens inside organisations’. 

This is foolish advice. That’s not to say it isn’t the best strategy for you – it could very well be. But rather, you’re much better off if you make a conscious decision for yourself based on your own unique situation. Keep reading to learn from the experience of two others, and then answer 10 questions designed to help you know if you should adopt the strategy or not.

The strategy has its risks and its rewards

Take Gib Bulloch. He’s seen as a pioneering social intrapreneur. And rightly so. 

In the book Social Intrapreneurism and all that Jazz, Gib shares with the authors David Grayson, Melody McLaren and Heiko Spitzeck:

“I tasked myself with putting this thinking into a form my colleagues at Accenture couldn’t ignore. Instead of producing a thick deck of PowerPoint presentation slides, I wrote a faux press article projecting six months into the future. It was set at the World Economic Forum in Davos where Accenture’s Chairman had just announced the launch of an innovative new not-for-profit to great acclaim. This faux article got the attention of the Chairman who agreed to discuss it over breakfast. He wanted to hear more about the idea. The journey to create Accenture Development Partnerships had begun.”

Gib didn’t know the Chairman personally, but he knew that getting buy-in right from the top, and right at the start was going to be his winning ticket. His clever yet risky business tactics worked. 12 years on, Accenture Development Partnerships, has become an award-winning business model that “enables Accenture’s core capabilities – its best people and strategic business, technology and project management expertise – to be made available to clients in the international development sector on a not-for-profit basis”. 

I too have taken this route when I was an intrapreneur at Virgin’s corporate foundation, Virgin Unite. I’d been working on a strategy for months that I believed would help the Group have a greater positive impact when humanitarian emergencies struck. But then, as they do, out of the blue an emergency happened. The thing is, it didn’t have my bosses final seal of approval. I’d developed a great deal of it, but it was still very much a side project. 

But here was my chance to test it out. And so I did. 

It worked very well. I was able to use the strategy to mobilise the right people very quickly. 

The hiccup came when I realized that what I didn’t factor in was a strategy on paper doesn’t always take into consideration human dynamics. And despite what others externally saw as a successful pilot, I’d stepped on the toes of internal colleagues more senior to me that I hadn’t given enough consideration to. 

This didn’t put an end to my project, but it did make it significantly harder for me from that moment forward, as from then on, it wasn’t about the idea or the potential impact, it was about interpersonal dynamics and rebuilding trust. 

You and I are different. We think differently, behave differently, work on different projects, inside different cultures, have different relationships, have different gripes and hang-ups, and aspire to different things. Who am I, or anyone else for that matter, to say ‘yes, go for it, seize the day and ask for forgiveness after the dust settles?’.

Only you can do that. But if you’ve never done it before, or if you have and been burned, then take a bit of time to ask yourself these 10 questions. They will enable you to decide whether or not this strategy is best for you right now. 

The goal is to move forward with confidence, clarity and conviction!

Good luck – but you won’t need it after this! 

1. Why do I care about this project? 

Quickly check-in with your original purpose before making any important decisions

2. What am I really hoping to achieve with my project? 

You also want to check-in with what you want to achieve. Look at this from multiple angles – your career, your sense of meaning and fulfillment, for your team, your organization, other stakeholders, etc

3. What is motivating me to act right now? 

The key here is to find out what is happening around you that could be making the timing feel important. If your motivation isn’t as balanced as you’d like it to be then you may want to ask yourself if your actually addressing the right challenge at hand. For example, if you’re sick of getting no from your boss and you just want to stick it to them, you may want to work on improving your relationship before doing anything that could seriously damage your relationship

4. How does this project fit in with the rest of my career goals? 

This is about gaining perspective. While this may feel like the most important thing for you to do right now, you want to determine if it really is by looking at the bigger picture

5. How do I feel about going ahead and taking action without permission? 

Ultimately, you must feel comfortable with any actions you take because you’re the one who must take responsibility for them. Check in not only with how it makes you feel, but if the decision matches your values 

6. What has my boss previously been saying ‘no’ to? 

If you can’t answer this then you may want to ask more questions because you may have misunderstood your boss. Stay curious… even when someone has blown the wind out of your sails. When this happens, it is so easy for us to get defensive. We stop listening. We shut down. Often, we don’t ask questions to really understand what they are saying ‘no’ to. Try to take your personal feelings out of the situation. Most people don’t want to say no just for the sake of it, they want to do what they think is the best thing to do. Staying curious helps you to figure out where they are coming from, and allows you to make the necessary changes to your approach based on the information you gain 

7. Which relationships could be impacted by my decision? 

Keep in mind that the impact on some relationships could be positive, and yet on others it could be negative. Might be worthwhile considering which relationships do you need to keep onside, and which could survive with a bit of short term tension

8. How well do you know how your organization really works?

If you’re relatively new, you may want to run your thinking past a colleague you can trust and who has been there long enough to know how it works. Their insights could prove invaluable to you.

9. After you do this, what is the next step in your plan? 

This is aimed at making sure you keep a long term focus, and don’t get caught up in the excitement surrounding the possibility of immediate gains. This can also help you determine if the timing is right to act – with permission or without it!

10. How much time and energy will I need to spend asking for forgiveness? Is it worth it?

Its worthwhile checking to see what assumptions you’ve made about this strategy being the easier and/or most effective option, as it may, or may not be.

 

If after all of this you’re still wondering what to do, you can always put your answers to the above questions into a simple pros and cons list for each side individually (ask forgiveness and ask permission) and see where the scales tip. 

Only you know what is the best step to take. Your answers to these questions will help you figure this out.

Have you use this strategy before? What else would you, or do you, ask yourself before deciding? Share in the comments as others benefit from learning from your experience too.