Is it better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission?

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with many who have stated their preference for forgiveness rather than permission.  I’ve always disliked that approach.  Why?  Because whoever operated with a “permission second” philosophy flouted the rules and acted in a way he or she deemed best.  The rules were established by people who had good reasons to write them as they did – perhaps based on experience, knowledge, safety, and/or business considerations.  But there’s typically someone who is willing to elevate his or her judgment above the collective wisdom, an action that has always struck me as arrogant.  Yea!  The person succeeded.  Boo!  The person broke the rules to win.  So much for how the game was played.

I also feel there’s something subversive and below-board about that tactic because if someone acts in a way that will later require forgiveness, he or she is going to have to conceal it somehow until the time to come clean.  It undermines trust at all levels.  Mavericks may be heroes in movies, but they’re unpredictable, loose cannons on the project team.

OK, before I start getting emails and comments from you free spirits, let me assure you I’m not the Bill Lumbergh (Office Space) of Project Management.  Rules exist to be updated, and that’s the way to operate.  Several years ago before a big audit by the government, the company I worked for had developed an innovative way to handle a certain planning problem.  Although I can’t go into the details of the issue or the solution, the approach was outside the boundaries of the currently accepted scheduling rules as defined by the government.  Rather than use our solution and ask for clemency when the auditors arrived, we identified the potential problem early and developed a briefing package for the government which I presented several months before the beginning of the audit.  The government agreed with our solution, and the rules were changed.  It was not an easy process.  It was a stressful one with high visibility and stakes.  But it was rewarded with approval and esteem.  Even better: the government knew we understood and respected their rules.

Are there times to push the boundaries?  Sure.  Although that approach may require you to become a bit of a lawyer when interpreting rule language, there may be instances where it is appropriate.   But my recommendation would be to have discussions with stakeholders about it first.  Talk about how you interpret the rules and where there may be some latitude to achieve a particular objective in an unconventional way.

What do you have to lose?  Don’t you believe your stakeholders are just as rational, intelligent, and clear-thinking as you?


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