“The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday – no matter what happened Tuesday.” – Stephen Colbert
Speaking of confirmation bias …
Confirmation bias is a tendency we all have. It’s what leads us to accept without question expositions we agree with no matter how flawed they might be, while nitpicking to death ones we dislike no matter how carefully constructed.
We typically unleash our confirmation biases on presentations consisting of evidence and logic. But I’ve noticed that clever quotes, wisecracks, and even cartoons can also trigger the effect.
Cartoons (not this week’s subject) are probably the most pernicious, because really, don’t you feel silly arguing with a sketch and a caption? But clever quotes are, I think, a close second, which brings us to the subject of this week’s diatribe – Admiral Grace Hopper’s frequently repeated, “I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission.”
It’s a quote that, when you don’t stop to think about it, encourages us to stick it to the bureaucrats who force us to jump through a cube-farm-full of flaming hoops before we can do something that is, to our completely objective foveae, Common Sense.
When you do stop to think about it, your flaming hoop is someone else’s hard-won wisdom.
Maybe I’m just confirmation-biasing Admiral Hopper because of her role in creating COBOL – a hideously inelegant language whose approach to basic arithmetic: ADD L TO M GIVING N is harder than Roman numerals to quality-assure, in contrast to FORTRAN’s more enlightened N = L + M.
But my confirmation-bias aside, I wonder if, as a naval officer, she would have been as forgiving to a subordinate who neglected to ask her for permission before charging ahead with something risky as she hoped for forgiveness when she took her own advice.
We’re faced with a dual challenge. An organization’s policies, procedures, governance, and compliance requirements represent the accumulated knowledge, judgment, and wisdom it has acquired since it first launched itself into the marketplace.
Ignoring them because they’re inconvenient given what you’re dealing with right now might not be the best way to stay on the right side of the line that separates self-confidence from arrogance.
But on the other hand, all the accumulated knowledge, wisdom and so forth is about the past. The action you’re contemplating is about the future.
To the extent you expect the future to resemble the past, you should, at a minimum, take the time to make sure you can articulate why waiting for permission would be damaging.
And to the extent your expectations of how the future will come out make the organization’s stored memories irrelevant, the day you take your first step on the path toward needing to ask for forgiveness isn’t too soon to start preparing a compelling narrative that explains why and how today’s constraints aren’t relevant to what tomorrow will require.
Compare Admiral Hopper’s formulation to that of a different naval officer: D. Michael Abrashoff, former Captain of the Benfold and author of It’s Your Ship: “Whenever the consequences of a decision had the potential to kill or injure someone, waste tax-payers’ money, or damage the ship, I had to be consulted. Sailors and more junior officers were encouraged to make decisions and take action so long as they stayed on the right side of that line.”
Bob’s last word: There’s another dimension to all this: Sometimes opportunities and threats arise all by themselves. They’re both real and ephemeral – by the time you finally get approval they’ll have passed the organization by.
Admiral Hopper’s guidance was, I hope, directed at these situations, where tactics legitimately get ahead of strategy.
That is, what I hope she meant is that if you had jumped through all the flaming hoops you would have ended up receiving permission eventually.
Wise leaders, though, provide guidelines along the lines of those Captain Abrashoff gave his crew. Do this and you make asking for either permission or forgiveness irrelevant.
Bob’s sales pitch: I’m always interested in what you’re interested in … and what any non-subscribers you know would be interested in.
My most frequent topics are, in no particular order: leadership and personal effectiveness, business ethics, career management, metrics, office politics, organizational change and effectiveness, project management, and architecture.
To name a few, but I’m open to other suggestions, too.
Please take a few minutes to let me know.
And yes, I do accept emailed in ballots. And no, I don’t require a photo ID to accept your vote.
On CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide: “Why every IT leader should avoid ‘best practices’,” explaining why CIOs would be wise to know there are no best practices, only practices that fit best.