Walt Grassl

Asking for Forgiveness, Not Permission: The Importance of Judgment and Responsibility

By Walt GrasslWalt Grassl

When you hear the phrase “ask for forgiveness, not permission”, what do you think?

Do you think, “I can do anything I want and if something goes wrong or if I get caught, I’ll just say I’m sorry?” Wrong! Actions have consequences.

Often in business, if speed and agility are important and if many mistakes can be corrected, creating a culture of “ask for forgiveness, not permission” can empower a workforce.

The key to successfully implementing this strategy is stressing the proper use of judgment and holding people accountable for their decisions.

The following examples will show you how this change in mindset can improve performance at any level of a company.

On the front-lines: James works in an engineering lab. One Thursday afternoon, a company expediter tried delivering a package to the lab. The lab supervisor who normally signs for packages was away at a meeting. Three of James’ fellow employees were unwilling to sign and debating if a supervisor’s signature was required. James walked over and after listening to the discussion for a few minutes said, “I’ll sign it”.

He figured it made no sense for the expediter to wait around for a half hour or more for the supervisor to return. Nor did it make sense for the expediter to take the package back and redeliver at a later time. Both of those options would be wasteful. He didn’t think he’d be fired for signing for it and would discuss the situation with his supervisor later.

When his supervisor Melissa, returned, James told her what happened. Not only was he not fired, Melissa gave him kudos for exercising good judgment.

In customer service: John works in a very large company. He received an outside call about a system that had been delivered to a customer ten years ago. The customer was looking for a specific employee who had retired (John had inherited his phone number when he started at the company).

John could have said, “Sorry, I can’t help you.” It wasn’t his job to route calls. However, John tried to get as much information about the system from the customer and took the customer’s name and number. John then searched the company’s internal website to try to find someone associated with the system. He identified Dan as someone who might know something and called him. Dan said he wasn’t the guy but that another employee, Nancy, was the correct contact. John called Nancy and she was extremely grateful. The customer was a big deal in her part of the company and she made sure John was recognized for his initiative.

In sales: Melanie sold custom computer-based systems. She had a customer who wanted delivery of a system one month faster than the normal six month lead time. Melanie wanted to please the customer and make the sale. She knew that the software customization was the critical path to delivery. Rather than promise an unrealistic five month delivery, she offered the customer a five month hardware delivery with beta software. The final software delivery would be made at after seven months. That gave her team time to prepare the beta delivery and incorporate feedback from the customer’s use of the beta software. The customer was happy because they could begin to integrate the system in their business sooner. When she brought the out-of-the-box proposal back to her team, she was acknowledged for her creativity in making a sale without risking the reputation of the company for on-time deliveries.

In leadership: William was assigned his first project leadership position, leading two others in the development of a test system. Traditionally, William was expected to manage the project and do 40% of the work, his mid-level engineer, Frank, 40% and his junior engineer, Dennis, 20%.

When his team met at the beginning of the project, communication with other organizations within the company was perceived to be the biggest obstacle to success. William’s two other team members dreaded the coordination effort and felt they could never get any work done if they were constantly chasing information.

William proposed a different distribution of the work. He would manage and report the status of the project, as well as chase down all information for Frank and Dennis. Frank would do two-thirds of the work and Dennis one-third. Frank and Dennis both jumped at the idea because they could focus on the work they wanted to do. The project was almost finished when William’s manager discovered this unconventional distribution of work. Since the project was under budget and ahead of schedule, William’s manager just shook his head and said, “Well done!”

Acting before asking requires keen judgment. Every situation is different. Here are some questions to ask yourself before deciding not to ask for permission first:

  • Is what I am going to do illegal?
  • Is what I am going to do in specific violation of company policy?
  • Do I have enough information to make a reasonable decision?
  • If what I choose to do does not work out, what is the worst possible outcome?
  • If what I choose to do does not work out, is there a reasonable plan to recover?
  • If what I choose to do does not work out, am I willing to accept responsibility for making the decision and not look to blame others for the unexpected outcome?

The answers to these questions will help you decide whether or not to ask for permission.

When you reward employees for their good judgment and teach them how to improve their judgment, you get improved morale as well as a faster, more agile workforce. The mistakes that may occur are teaching moments that contribute to the improvement, not failures to execute.

Walt Grassl is a speaker, author, and performer. He hosts the radio show, “Stand Up and Speak Up,” on the RockStar Worldwide network. Walt has performed standup comedy at the Hollywood Improv and the Flamingo in Las Vegas and is studying improv at the Groundlings School in Hollywood. For more information on bringing Walt Grassl to your next event, please visit