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.

Draw a Venn diagram. Label one of the circles “What I’m good at.” Label the next “What I enjoy doing.” The third reads, “What someone will pay me to do.

Where the three intersect? That’s your career, if you want one. It’s also the core  framework hiring managers have in the backs of their minds when trying to staff their organizations.

They’re accustomed to hiring employees. They bring in contractors – independent workers, also known as members of the gig economy – for situations that call for individuals with a well-defined “sack o’ skills” for a finite duration.

Contractors are, that is, members of the workforce who have decided they won’t scratch their circle #2 itches through their careers. Their numbers appear to be increasing, very likely as an offset to those who prefer the traditional employment/career approach to earning a living.

Managers generally think of their organization as a social construct. When staffing a role, hiring an employee is their default, and for good reason. They want someone who will do more than just a defined body of work. Beyond that they want people who will pitch in to help the society function smoothly, who will provide knowledge and continuity, who find this dynamic desirable, and whose attitudes and approaches are compatible with the business culture.

Bringing in a contractor is, for most open positions, Plan B.

Which is unfortunate for hiring managers right now. The trend appears to be that if they want enough people to get the organization’s work done they’re going to have to make more use of contractors … and not only contractors but also employees who have no interest in pursuing a career, just an honest day’s pay in exchange for their honest day’s work – who want jobs, not careers.

A different approach to staffing to what we’ve all become accustomed to is evolving, one that’s more transactional and less interpersonal. Culture will be less of a force because contractors will spend less time acculturating than employees; also, the ratio of time working independently than in the team situations where culture matters most is steadily increasing.

In some respects it will be more expensive. Contractor turnover will be higher than employee turnover because that’s built into how the relationship is defined. The ratio of onboarding time to productive time will increase.

Managers who don’t want to head down this road do have an alternative: They can compete for those members of the workforce who don’t want to become independent. The law of supply and demand suggests that this approach will cost more. It will also mean thinking through how to make the work environment as desirable as possible.

One more factor, as if one was needed: The security ramifications of a more transient workforce are significant.

Bob’s last word: “Digital” refers to changes in a company’s marketplace that call for changes in a company’s business strategy in response. Digital is all about products and customer relationships.

The current restructuring of traditional staffing practices is the result of digitization, the rise of the remote worker digital technologies have enabled, and COVID-19, which accelerated it all. It’s the next digital marketplace transformation to which businesses must adapt, only this time the marketplace in question is the one that trades in labor.

Adapting to this nascent transformation of the employment marketplace is less familiar territory, but it isn’t different in principle. Strategists have always had to think in terms of where their organizations fit into an overall business ecosystem. Staffing has always been part of this overall ecosystem. It’s just that few business leaders, not to mention those of us who engage in punditry and futurism … anticipated how quickly and dramatically this ecosystem would morph.

Bob’s sales pitch: Ten years ago, when I published Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century IT, “Digital” was still an adjective, “everybody knew” the rest of the business was IT’s internal customer, and “best practice” was a phrase people tossed around when they had nothing better to say.

Oh, well. You can’t win ‘em all. But even though Digital has been noun-ified, this book’s 13 principles for leading an effective IT organization are as relevant as the day the book was published.