Ask for forgiveness and radiate intent

Piotr Stojanow's avatar

Piotr Stojanow


Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

Elizabeth Ayer in her great post takes issue with the common advice attributed to Grace Hopper: “It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission”.

She proposes that one should instead “radiate intent”. Signaling to everyone what our intentions are:

The idea is that if the subordinate reliably signals intent, it removes the supervisor’s inclination to micromanage, while still allowing them to intervene if really necessary.

I agree that “radiating intent” is a viable strategy. Yet, I wouldn’t go as far as dismiss “asking for forgiveness”. Furthermore, I don’t see them as being exclusive.

I hope the following isn’t interpreted as a nitpick. Grace Hopper actually said that “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”. This changes the meaning. Especially when looking on it from the permission-giver side because:

It’s also easier to give forgiveness than permission.

If the “offender” accomplished something that is beneficial for the organisation or the higher-ups and in the process avoided the status games, politics, making the superiors take responsibility etc., then all is well that ends well.

Imagine forgiveness being a currency, then:

  • Higher-Up: is willing to pay with forgiveness for having the job done hassle-free.

  • Offender”: is willing to take an interest-free “forgiveness loan” to do the job without a hassle.

Granted sometimes the “offender” screws up so much that the “forgiveness loan” is too big to pay off. He must then pay with his position or other assets. That’s why the loan while interest-free always has implicit collateral. From this point of view “asking for forgiveness” levels the playing field and guarantees that the “offender” has skin in the game.

Elizabeth gives four reasons where radiating intent is better than begging forgiveness.

Radiating intent gives a chance for someone to stop you before you do a thing, in case it’s truly harmful

Sometimes the best remedy is harmful in the beginning. Neither radiating intent nor seeking permission would make people agree to take it. In those situations asking for forgiveness gets the job done.

Radiating intent gives people who have information, or want to help, an opening to participate

It also brings aboard people we don’t want to participate with. By opting for asking for forgiveness, we can covertly recruit people we want.

Radiating intent leaves better evidence of your good will

I can’t argue with that. But, keeping a decision journal will help document your intent.

Radiating intent shows others that adventurous behavior is acceptable in the org.

This is true for asking forgiveness as well.

Elizabeth notes that we should take responsibility for our choices:

Radiating intent also has the advantage over asking permission that the “radiator” keeps responsibility if things go sour. It doesn’t transfer the blame the way seeking permission does, which is good.

This is exactly what asking for forgiveness does too. The collateral in the forgiveness loan guarantees that the “offender” has skin in the game. It stops him from going on a rampage breaking all the rules all the time to have his way.

An advantage of radiating intent is that it builds trust. As well as “a track record of openness and predictability, even as I take risks or push boundaries.” Asking for forgiveness builds trust only within a small circle of in-the-know people. It gives you the reputation of a person that gets things done. It’s not an all-purpose tool. It’s a strategy that works where speed is crucial, the culture is complacent or nobody wants to take risk and responsibility.

In the military, “explicit intent” (publicly stating: capture the flag!) is different than “implicit intent” (publicly stating: capture the flag… Non-verbalized expectation: with no casualties!). Both need different approaches.

We can use “radiating intent” and “asking for forgiveness” depending on the situation. Operate in “radiating intent” mode by default. Switch to “asking for forgiveness” where a surgical strike demands it.