Saturday, March 19, 2011

Seek Forgiveness or Beg Permission?

I have a friend who is engaged in a very particular type of activity as part of the Intelligence Community. This activity requires, by definition, particular types of behavior. My friend, who is quite a capable individual, recently came up with a novel approach to performing his duties. Without giving away any details, suffice it to say that his boss balked. In short, his boss was afraid that HIS boss might object (without ever asking, just an apparent ‘gut’ response) and so told my friend to stop his operation.

What can we learn from this?

First, the simple truth is that many people in positions of authority are more afraid of loss then they are desirous of success. Thus, they spend a fair amount of time making sure nothing goes wrong rather than trying to make something go right. The end result is that they stifle the creativity of those who work for them.

Avoiding mistakes is always one way to go through life, but it hardly ever satisfies anyone. And the truth is that virtually any plan has risks, even doing nothing. If you are satisfied in a bureaucratic cubbyhole you can choose the path of inaction and remain comfortable. But in every other case, you will find you must act and let those around you act. That will mean risk and you, as a leader, must learn to embrace that risk. Are there ways to mitigate risk? Certainly, through the selection of good people and the development of a decent planning process. But there will always be risk – if you want out of your cubbyhole.

Second, people in leadership positions who are afraid of new ideas will also usually be afraid of creative, aggressive people. In extreme cases they will extend this to the point of convincing themselves that their subordinates are plotting against them, trying to usurp their power and take their position.

Good leaders on the other hand encourage their people to experiment, to try new ways of ‘doing business,’ and will ‘run interference’ from higher up to ensure they have the freedom to try. Good leaders know that in any decent organization the top leadership will look into the ranks and when they see that bright, talented and creative folks keep popping up out of one particular office, they will reward the middle manager who is producing all the new talent.

If you find yourself at first a bit put-off by one of your subordinates ideas, ask for a detailed explanation – not a bunch of briefing slides, an explanation, face to face. Then ask yourself why you are uncomfortable. If it is technology, that’s your problem and no one else’s. You need to get smarter on technology. It is also the reason you have other people working for you: you can’t know everything. If you trust your people at all, you should let them try it.

If you are uncomfortable because you think something is against the rules – real or implied (whether the law, corporate ethics, or simply the rules your boss came up with), you should investigate a little before you say no. Is it really against the rules? If not, then let them try. If it clearly is against the rules, tell your people. I think you will be amazed at how hard they will work to find a legal way to do things.

What if it is in a gray area, not clearly against the rules, but it looks like parts of it may be? If you have a large organization it will have a legal support office of some sort. Go sit down with someone – face to face, not by e-mail – and see what the legal office thinks.

The point here is that your job as boss is to make things happen. So, when someone comes to you with an idea, your job is to figure out how to say “CHARGE!” It is most definitely not to say “WHOA!”

Alternatively, you can go back to your cubbyhole.

Third, great successes usually come from doing things differently. Doing the same thing over and over again, without change, will eventually lead to stagnation and then failure. The competition will eventually ‘figure it out’ and you will lose whatever advantage you once held.

But you will never come up with all the possible ways of doing things differently. That is what all those folks do who work for you. Some of those ideas may be a bit ‘off the reservation.’ Don’t throw out the idea. Instead, take a close look. See if there isn’t some way to ‘tweak’ the idea so that is can be used. Remember, your job as boss is to help those who work for you do the real work of your organization – in a very real sense you work for them.

There is an old saw that it is better to seek forgiveness than to beg for permission. Real progress – in any field – comes from doing things differently. And every time you do something differently someone somewhere is going to cry ‘Foul.’ The fact is that you have all sorts of people you can use to make sure you don’t break the law, without stifling creativity. By stimulating that creativity – and by sending the clear signal to your people that you will support them – you are going to get people to open their minds and explore new and better ways to use your technology, use your assets, and develop new solutions. And then when some naysayer whines about your new project you will find yourself standing in front of your boss saying “look at what my folks have done” and handing him the prize. If you had asked before hand it is just as likely he would have said ‘no.’ But if you bring success, seeking a little forgiveness for stretching the rules will seem a worthwhile effort.

Or you can climb back into your cubbyhole. The choice is yours.


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