Forgiveness or Permission?

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Categories: Leadership

Recently I had the opportunity to put together a "sales pitch" presentation to inform a potential customer about a latest and greatest widget. The audience included a vice president, a manager, some end users and a finance analyst. Since this presentation could potentially bring in a sizable amount of work for our team, I was nervous from the start.

Throughout the briefing, there were a healthy amount of discussions going back and forth between our team and our potential customer. Momentum was high after I concluded a few live demonstrations.

However, toward the end of the presentation, the infamous question came up, "How much is this going to cost?" My manager was the intended receiver of the question. There were some initial unintelligible hums followed by a long pause.

Then I interjected and started to describe a comparably scoped project that we'd done and how much resourcing it took to complete. I pointed out the similarities and proceeded to work with the audience in flushing out a detailed project scope. We concluded the briefing with a favorable impression and an agreement to continue our engagement.

As we traveled back to our office, I realized in answering for my manager that I'd decided to act on the notion that it's easier to ask forgiveness than to request permission. I am curious to know what my fellow project managers thing of this idea ...

In my case, my manger made a comment later that he would need to add "Pitch Man" to my current title. To my relief, he was smiling.  
Posted by Neal Shen on: October 29, 2009 09:35 AM | Permalink


Peter Stansbury
Apart from questioning why your manager might be at a pitch unprepared to answer that question ;-)............

I would essentially say there is a lot of merit to this approach.

There are many caveats, but if your instincts are good and your political radar in tune you can go a long way. Particularly if you are being brought in as an outsider (consultant, contractor etc.) when, in fact, part of your value is being able to operate outside of the political shackles that may be holding others back.

From a pure project management point of view, you are often arbitrating between specialists and this approach is needed. If you are within your agreed tolerances the decision can be relatively easy. Sometimes you are making a tougher choice. Using this concept can help you make the right choice.

Jeff Dahl
I think you dodged a bullet and have a good manager who did not step in and stop your explanation. Something that struck me as a problem is the hesitation of your manager to answer the question.

Why was he not prepared to answer the question?

How involved was your manager in discussing the future impact before this presentation.

J. Dahl

Raymond McKinney
A few years ago we had a project that was down and needed a special tool. It was Friday evening around 6:00 pm. I did some research, found the tool in Atlanta. By then it was nearing 9:00 pm and anyone with major signature authority for the client was gone. I chartered a private plane and flew the tool to the site in PA.

We were back on track by 4:00 AM Saturday morning. At 6:00 am, in the update meeting, I was asked on what authority did I spend $7,000 for a private plane to fly in a $300 tool. I explained our down time was over $45,000 per shift and I thought it wise to get the tool now rather than wait until Monday, receive authorization, and then receive the tool on Tuesday. I was commended for making a wise decision.

Lesson: As project managers and professionals we are tasked with doing what is best for the project. In many cases, we are where the buck stops. Sometimes decisions have to be made and we are the ones that have to make that decision. I have been questioned about decisions, even admonished for making the wrong decision, but I have never been admonished for actually making a decision. It is part of our job.

Gary Schinnell
The forgiveness versus permission debate brought back fond memories of a time when I authorized the use of a helicopter to access a snowed-in cellular communications tower site in order to complete a project. The fonts on the e-mail exchanged between me and my keepers got larger and redder as the issue of whether or not I should have done this was "discussed" but I was, eventually and begrudgingly, forgiven and photographs of my personnel at the site were used as evidence of our "git-er done" spirit.

As project managers, I believe it is important to respect the people we manage, encourage them to take prudent risks, and back them up if anyone has a problem with the fact that not all the rules were followed. In twenty years as a project manager, I haven't been disappointed with this course of action.

Kylie Nelson Shipsky, PMP
Asking permission is better—for your project and for your career! While I admire that in this case you saved your meeting from potential disaster, I wonder if your company has really done their homework on the client’s organization. Scope is only part of the picture. Will you be able to implement the project for THIS customer, in THEIR environment and working with THEIR unique constraints, within comparable ranges of time and cost? Also, a PM should be careful of earning a reputation as a maverick by pulling off remarkable feats in one area by ignoring constraints in another. I agree that the buck does stop with the PM. But unless you have direct control over funding, resources, environment, and countless other factors, most PMs still have to answer to someone else at the end of the day. And that person or group will likely not appreciate repeatedly having to clean up after those who make a habit of bulldozing. Trust me, your boss/stakeholder/project sponsor hates to be put on the hot seat--and as long as he/she is your boss/stakeholder/project sponsor, you'll want to avoid doing this more than is absolutely required. Over the course of a career, this translates to a very small handful of extenuating circumstances. Understand—sometimes eleventh-hour guerilla tactics ARE the only way to rescue a troubled project from total collapse. However, if you find yourself relying on unconventional means too often on too many projects, it may be a sign that you’re not planning, executing or controlling effectively. Better to keep your maverick card, like your authority, in your back pocket for use in emergencies only—and in every other case to focus on balancing ALL of your constraints to consistently implement the best plan for the project. What this approach lacks in glamour will pay dividends down the road by making you a stronger PM. For long-term success, be the kind of PM who can be relied upon not only to get the job done, but to do so while operating INSIDE of the box—most of the time.

Joe Gasior
I believe Raymond McKinney (November 4, 2009) said it very clearly! His point is that we need to make those decisions when it is prudent to do so. In your specific situation at the meeting, only you and your boss can answer that question -- for several reasons.

First, we are to consider the environment. Mr. McKinney presents a perfect example to prove his point. He can demonstrate immediate and measurable gains from his decision. Often, this is not the case. In your meeting, you must be aware of the dynamics of your relationships with those in the room, as well as with your boss. I'm sure you have gone to meetings with this individual before and were well versed in how he might respond (although not a guarantee).

Second, be willing to be admonished or even chastised for your actions – before you act on your decision. That is to say, be aware of the consequences – not just for you and your division, but also your entire organization. Accept the criticism, and eat some humble pie if the end result is not what you intended. Most managers realize that people make bad judgments and will respect a person who responds well here.

Finally (and I think most importantly), don't use the forgiveness/permission idea as a rule in making your decision. Depending on the dynamics of any given situation, permission might outweigh forgiveness and so it is the other way around. This is a case-by-case, scenario-by-scenario decision that may not always be cut-and-dry. Great discussion!

Two years late, yes I know. However, I stumbled upon this and wanted to leave just a bit of my two cents.

I think that two years ago, the economy was better--not much, but better at least. Anyway, now I think that if my employee were to take a large risk with my money behind my back, I would be extremely upset.

It is a tough economy, and I am the boss for a reason.

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