There is one thing, one very important concept, that drives many of our professional decisions. It is not usually embraced by those at the top of the corporate ladder or those at the forefront of innovation but rather by the huge workforce somewhere in the middle. It pulls us to a screeching halt, puts others before ourselves (not always a bad thing), and is the source of an internal tug-of-war between Do and Don't Do. It keeps us in the same place, reluctant to learn, change, or take risks. That thing is Permission. And it should be abolished.
What Permission does
Permission, or formal consent, is in place to protect something. It is a force of authority in our lives from the very beginning, whether we need need it to leave class to go potty or to install software. Its objectives – arguably its only justifiable purposes – are to serve people and assets, saving us from the likes of classroom interruptions or malicious programs. Used well, Permission creates boundaries that allow groups of people to work together and is a check against an abuse of power or influence.
Maybe because I am a freelancer, or because I grew up with laissez-faire parents, I generally loathe Permission. It does have reasonable applications: for example it will always be necessary to ask before posting client work to Dribbble or adding subscribers to a newsletter. These checks are good and respect privacy. But Permission is also a demon of a thing. It gets hardwired into our thinking in a way that is difficult to shake, and if we must ask for it too often, we begin to perceive boundaries that aren't really there.
You've probably experienced this – designers back away from risky designs that don't mold to the current trend, developers avoid new (or old) technologies, or business owners neglect pitching to different industries because they assume they won't get the work. In these instances, we've told ourselves we need peer approval, or Permission, to do what we would really like to do.
How often have you stopped yourself from doing something because you assumed the answer would be No?
The very act of asking Permission implies vulnerability, especially when the outcome is something we care about. Asking Permission can mean:
- "I respect your opinion,"
- "I need your approval," or
- "I don't want responsibility."
Of these implications, only one honors the entrepreneurial spirit, and that is the first – "I respect your opinion." This message solicits meaningful collaboration between equals whereas the others simply reinforce a hierarchy, and hierarchy is notorious for stifling innovation.
"IT companies that require innovation to survive tend to have the flattest possible organizational structures because they know that hierarchies dampen creativity. The rest of us want innovation, but not that much. It’s disruptive, unpredictable and doesn’t fit our carefully crafted organizational chart and agreed business processes."- Steve Waldegrave, Australian Government
Permission exerts power in the guise of "fairness" or "stability," which I place inside quotes because these ideas are illusory, especially in an entrepreneurial world that favors self-motivation. A variety of factors go into approval processes that are biased, factors like agency and individual goals, available resources, or even a person's subjective likability. Stability too is an elusive concept. As I once heard a business-owner say, full-timers tend to believe their jobs are more stable than freelancers' jobs, but many businesses live paycheck to paycheck.
Let's look at what happens given the response to a request for Permission. If we get a Yes – Perfect. Green light. Whoosh. If we get a No – Silence. What next? Plan B?
Regardless of whether Permission is granted or denied, truly determined folks will find a way to execute their ideas no matter what. What if Airbnb, now valued at over $1 billion, had waited for Permission from investors to begin working on the idea they believed in? What if every iPhone app developer waited for Permission from their boss to work on their idea? I think it is safe to say that many of our favourite businesses and applications would not exist.
Suffice to say, Permission-based bureaucracy is outdated, and it stifles the ideas of respectful, decent folks who take Permission seriously. There is in fact a better way. And it's going to sound ridiculously simple.
An artful avoidance
The simple answer? Don't ask for Permission. Individuals must run fast and furiously with their innovative ideas. Those waiting for someone else's approval will be left behind.
These are a few strategies to artfully avoid Permission:
- Work on your own time via your own resources.
- Keep ideas quiet until you have something to show.
- Figure out a way your project will benefit others. This justifies avoidance.
- Claim ignorance (which only works for so long).
- Ask forgiveness – trite, but true, and often easier than getting Permission.
And if you've hit a creative block, here are a few applications of artful avoidance:
- Learn new and different skill sets. Follow your interests, not your job title.
- Hold a meeting or gathering – a scrum, meet up, or collaboration – without someone telling you to do so.
- Find time to push your boundaries, ie. read tutorials and get involved in events outside of work.
- Don't wait for capital to start working on a good idea. If capital is necessary, embrace the Kickstarter mentality and raise it yourself.
- Start doing the work you want to do. You don't necessarily need a client to begin designing or building the type of projects you want to build. Write your own brief.
Unreasonable ways to avoid Permission – must they be said? – are to steal material or to disrespect other people's ideas and opinions. And sometimes, despite my renegade bent, it is necessary to navigate the world of bosses, colleagues, and other responsibilities. In these cases give Permission a lowercase p, and perhaps even rename it Backing, Support, or Reinforcement, which are truer reflections of a well-intentioned Permission system.
Why you won't fail
The point of shirking Permission is, paradoxically, to allow ourselves to do the things we've been neglecting. When the onus is on us to self-start, we not only gain reputations as people who take initiative, but we also learn and grow faster than those waiting in the wings. Embarking upon new endeavours is a healthy way to learn, and learning is the ultimate objective. Give yourself Permission to start taking risks now, and that will be the real success.