Permission to Ask Permission

The power to say “no” and the power to say “yes” should be bundled. In especially bureaucratic organizations, they rarely are.

You’ve possibly encountered this frustration. You want to get permission for something – maybe building a new deck, maybe starting a new project at work, whatever – and so you talk to the person you’ve been led to believe is who can grant you permission. They’re resistant. After some hassle, you finally convince them to allow you to do whatever thing you wanted to do. The frustration mounts as you discover that the only thing this drone is giving you permission to do is to ask the next higher-up person for permission!

“If you can’t give me permission, why am I even talking to you?” you ask. They reply: “I can’t say ‘yes,’ but I can say ‘no.'”

I don’t usually feel stabby, but there are occasions.

Organizations are all better if there are fewer points where people need to ask permission for anything. “Permission Points” are all friction, all speed bumps. They may sometimes be necessary, but they should be used sparingly; nearly every organization over-uses them. The easiest way to reduce them is to make sure that no one has the ability to say “no” without also having the ability to say “yes.”

Think about the typical hiring process. You interview with 3 or more people, any one of whom can deny you further advancement in the process, but none of which can actually hire you. The only person who can hire you is the Final Boss, who barely phones in the interview as a formality and mostly just trusts what everyone else has said about you. This is a dumb way to do things, and it hurts the organization in invisible (but dire) ways.

Trust people. Trust people to say “yes” if you trust them to say “no.” Reduce your permission points in general, and especially reduce the ones that only go one way and therefore serve no purpose whatsoever.

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