Don’t ask forgiveness, radiate intent

Elizabeth Ayer
Jun 27 · 3 min read
Images from Hand Signals on Wikipedia

I take issue with a lot of standard advice. “Pick your battles” is terrible, and “Stay in your lane” is something of a trigger phrase for me. Today, though, my sights are set on: “It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission

Although is pains me to reject advice from the late great Grace Hopper… this advice I do hereby reject.

I understand the sentiment behind it: we are often held back by “rules” that don’t even exist. Or if the rules do exist, it’s likely that nobody cares enough to punish us for breaking them. Even in the unlikely event that someone does care, the consequences won’t be too bad. Weigh this against how hard it is to push people into risky decisions, and there you have it.

As a statement about probabilities and consequences, it’s fair enough. But begging forgiveness only if things go wrong just isn’t for me.

I prefer to shout my intent from the rooftops, loudly enough that the people on the next continent can hear. It’s the turn signal approach, or “radiating intent.”

For me, the idea came from L. David Marquet who suggests using “I intend to…” to your superiors. The idea is that if the subordinate reliably signals intent, it removes the supervisor’s inclination to micromanage, while still allowing them to intervene if really necessary.

This phrase doesn’t need to be restricted to the leaders and subordinates, obviously. Radiating intent is also powerful throughout an organization.

Here are 4 reasons that radiating intent is better than begging forgiveness:

  • Radiating intent gives a chance for someone to stop you before you do a thing, in case it’s truly harmful
  • Radiating intent gives people who have information, or want to help, an opening to participate
  • Radiating intent leaves better evidence of your good will
  • Radiating intent shows others that adventurous behavior is acceptable in the org.

Radiating intent also has the advantage over asking permission that the “radiator” keeps responsibility if things go sour. It doesn’t transfer the blame the way seeking permission does, which is good. We should be responsible for our choices.

An example of radiating: I recently spent a day working from Canada. I’m still not sure if it was allowed, but I mentioned it to my supervisor. I mentioned it to my supervisor’s supervisor. I mentioned it to more than a few colleagues. One of them told me I could request permission for my work phone to be used internationally. I did this. It worked. There were many chances for a slow-mo “Noooooooooo” if this travel was going to cause a problem.

All in all, this is a healthier approach, or maybe addendum to the “ask forgiveness” maxim. Radiating intent builds trust, whereas simply asking forgiveness without warning of the action… frankly, that smells fishy.

What I’ve said so far is solid, but I’m going to go reach further: I also don’t believe that “ask forgiveness” is inclusive advice. If you are from a group who has historically not been granted forgiveness, how is that going to land? Or if you’re in a group with cultural baggage around subversive behavior?

I certainly don’t need a reputation as being underhanded or an organizational problem. Especially as a repeat behavior, signalling builds me a track record of openness and predictability, even as I take risks or push boundaries.

In all fairness, you might get less done by radiating intent. It does give obstructive or meddling folks a way into your thing. Also, advice like this is very situation- and organization-dependent and won’t be appropriate all the time.

Still, as it says in the popular self-help book the Washington Drivers Guide,

Get into the habit of signaling every time you change direction. Signal even when you do not see anyone else around. It is easy to miss someone who needs to know what you are doing.

All truth. Use your turn signals, radiate your intent, and go for it!

Elizabeth Ayer

Written by

Improving users' experience of government at 18F. Ex-Portfolio Manager at @redgate. Infatuated by the possibilities of bringing product thinking to #govtech.