The Myth of Begging Forgiveness?

During my career I’ve heard people say the phrase “It’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission”. Indeed, only the other week, I listened to a podcast where it was mentioned.

I must admit to previously letting the phrase wash over me, without properly thinking about it. I like to think I take calculated risks and do what needs to be done to support delivery. But hearing it on the podcast made me think about this phrase in more depth and what it really means.

The phrase apparently originated in quote from Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who was a U.S. Navel officer and early programming pioneer. According to Wikipedia, she was quoted saying this phrase in 1986 in the U.S. Navy’s magazine.

In looking round on the web at this phrase, I see a variety of opinions about it, ranging from acceptance as a way of working to outright derision. More people than I expected find it a poor excuse to behave disrespectfully and some even calling it licence for inconsiderate jerks.

In a large organisation, processes are established to make things work in a consistent and understandable way, to help with efficiency and simplification of communication. To ensure good governance, approval steps are put in place, which elevates decision making to certain levels of the hierarchy. But these processes only work when the environment is relatively stable, or changes in a predictable way. In a rapidly changing situation and one with challenging timescales, this consistency has the effect of acting like treacle and slowing delivery down, despite the best intentions when they were established.

In these circumstances, frustrations with ‘the way things are done around here’ can lead to people being tempted to just get on with stuff and hope to get away with it. The problem is that a large organisation is not set up to even allow forgiveness. It acts like a body subject to a virus, it rejects the virus or even attacks it back.

What happens is more akin to “you’ll fail to obtain forgiveness because the organisation will punish you later”.

What happens is one of the following responses:

  • “You’ve not followed the rules this time, so we’ll let you do it this time on the understanding that you’ll never never break the rules again”
  • “You’ve not followed the rules this time, so we’ll slow something already put in train with additional approval caveats that are a test of your stamina
  • “You’ve not followed the rules this time, and if you think that is a good way of doing it, then you need set up a working group, to review the process and come back to persuade governance board a and group b and the C team that this needs to be changed. See you in six months.

A measure of an organisation that actually supports the process of seeking forgiveness would be “you’ve not followed the rules this time, but the way you did it actually makes sense, let’s change our processes to make this the new normal”.

So the next time someone says the seek forgiveness phrase to you, call them out. Challenge them to provide an example of where someone seeking forgiveness after the event of a decision taken with good and honest intentions has actually changed organisational policy.

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