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.

The Marx Brothers defined hilarity for a generation or more. But watch one of their movies now and you’re likely to be struck by how often their timing is off, their humor punctuated by uncomfortable pauses.

But as Groucho explained in his memorable* autobiography Groucho and Me, the pauses were a feature, not a bug.

It happened like this: Attending the premiere of one of their movies, the brothers noticed that the audience often missed some of their best jokes, because they were drowned out by laughter from the previous punchline.

To fix the problem the brothers and crew took future shows on the road, as musicals performed in front of live audiences.

Their goal wasn’t to make a few more bucks. It was to time the laughs, so they’d know now long a pause to leave after each joke when they turned the show into a movie.

This became relevant to my intermittent public speaking quite a few years ago. It’s become relevant to how you lead and manage, as you now face the same challenge the Marx brothers faced, your average radio hosts have faced for years, and I discovered when I found myself conducting more webcasts and webinars than live presentations.

Namely, we all find ourselves talking to dead air, not people. Because while the people are there, listening to the disk jockey and me, we can’t hear our audience’s reaction to what we’re saying and how we’re saying it.

For me the issue is public speaking. For you it’s presenting and facilitating video meetings. Neither you nor I have, that is, any way to tell whether hilarity has ensued or our material has fallen completely and utterly flat.

Which brings me to my first piece of advice: If you lack sufficient self-confidence to know, deep in your bones, that your material is brilliant, tell fewer jokes and funny anecdotes. Because without that confidence you’ll discover an emotion even the best stand-up comics sometimes experience: flop sweat. And you’ll experience it even when you haven’t flopped.

Second: Leave no time for laughter. For whatever reason, groups of people laugh longer than individuals, so even if your wisecrack provokes a chuckle, it won’t last longer than a second or two.

Third: Resist the temptation to “go flat.” With a live audience, when the presenter’s material doesn’t generate a response their instinct is to retreat to a gesture-free, inflectionless monotone.

It’s an instinct I’ve learned to suppress, as it can only lead to one place – a vicious, negative-feedback-driven descent into feigning a cardiac event to get me off the hook.

Listen to successful radio hosts and you’ll hear them injecting more … not as much, more … vocal inflection into their schtick.

So piece-of-advice #3 is to kick it up a notch. Express yourself with as much liveliness as you can muster. At first this will feel phony. That will pass.

One more: At least when you have the authority to mandate such things, insist your virtual meetings are video-on meetings. Participants might gripe, but don’t let their grumbling sway you. Point out that expression and body language contain more than half of all communication, and you want communication in your team to be as complete as possible.

Bob’s last word: Every time you present or facilitate via Teams, Zoom, plain old teleconference, or what-have-you, record the session. Then take the time to watch and listen to yourself. The first time round you’ll probably wince a few times, but that’s okay. Everything that makes you wince is something you’ll be sure to do better next time round.

Bob’s sales pitch: I still don’t love putting on webcasts, because I like the audience feedback that comes from doing things live. But put them on I do, and who better for you to put in front of your group than yours truly, whether I’m in front virtually or 3D.

Interested? To reach me, click here.

Now on CIO.com:XaaS isn’t everything – and it isn’t serviceable.” It’s about how “everything as a service” doesn’t include everything, and in fact it doesn’t include lots of important things. And no, I don’t know when “X” came to mean “everything” either.


* This is based on my memory of the book, not a recent reading. I read Groucho and Me in 7th grade, mostly in study hall, from which the proctor once ejected me for laughing too loud and often. I remember the ejection, and the A I received for my book report far more vividly than Groucho’s memoire itself.