Grant Yourself Permission

There’s a calligraphed quote that adorns the wall above my desk in a lovely frame. It’s a gift from my wife on our first Christmas together. It reads;

It’s frequently easier to apologize later than it is to get permission beforehand
Grace Murray Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was a legend in computer science circles. One of the inventors of COBOL, often credited with coining the term “bug”, once the highest ranking woman in the US Navy. Google her when you have some time.

The first order interpretation of her advice ties into Silicon Valley’s celebration of rapid innovation and invention. Move fast and break things. It’s an appealing strategy for a hyper-competitive environment. I’ve advocated it and followed it. I may simply be getting too old, but I think Hopper might demand a more insightful and deeper interpretation if she were still with us.

We tie permission to authority. What we overlook is that authority ought to correlate with knowledge. Someone gains authority because they are in a position to see a bigger picture, to take in more of the relevant pattern. Hopper is trying to remind us that authority depends on knowledge. But the knowledge comes before the authority.

If you are the one who is knowledgeable, then you already have the authority. Grant yourself permission.

The kicker, of course, is that you also have to accept responsibility. It’s not about apologizing so much as it is about educating. About sharing the knowledge that is the source of your claimed authority. It is no longer about issuing or following orders. It is about conversations that establish the shared knowledge environment. Peter Drucker, as is so often the case, sums it up nicely.

In a knowledge economy there no such thing as conscripts, there are only volunteers. The trouble is we have trained our managers to manage conscripts.