You don’t have my permission

Don’t ask for permission, come with intent.

I don’t read many business books, but last year I read one that had a profound effect on me: “Turn The Ship Around” by L. David Marquet. I guess it’s not really a business book, which is probably why I liked it.

Here’s how it’s described on Amazon:

“Leadership should mean giving control rather than taking control and creating leaders rather than forging followers.” David Marquet, an experienced Navy officer, was used to giving orders. As newly appointed captain of the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine, he was responsible for more than a hundred sailors, deep in the sea. In this high-stress environment, where there is no margin for error, it was crucial his men did their job and did it well. But the ship was dogged by poor morale, poor performance, and the worst retention in the fleet.

Marquet acted like any other captain until, one day, he unknowingly gave an impossible order, and his crew tried to follow it anyway. When he asked why the order wasn’t challenged, the answer was “Because you told me to.” Marquet realized he was leading in a culture of followers, and they were all in danger unless they fundamentally changed the way they did things. That’s when Marquet took matters into his own hands and pushed for leadership at every level.

Turn the Ship Around! is the true story of how the Santa Fe skyrocketed from worst to first in the fleet by challenging the U.S. Navy’s traditional leader-follower approach. Struggling against his own instincts to take control, he instead achieved the vastly more powerful model of giving control. Before long, each member of Marquet’s crew became a leader and assumed responsibility for everything he did, from clerical tasks to crucial combat decisions. The crew became fully engaged, contributing their full intellectual capacity every day, and the Santa Fe started winning awards and promoting a highly disproportionate number of officers to submarine command.

The fundamental premise is that he realized that when people come to you for orders, or ask your permission to do something, they don’t bring any of their own responsibility to the request. They’re asking you if they can xyz. That puts it on you. They don’t have to fully consider their ask because they still need you to OK it. You’re their door stop just in case. So it’s not about them and what they want to do, it’s about what you are OK with them doing. And even if you OK it, it only happened because you said it could happen. That creates too many dependencies, and — like Marquet — I believe people and teams within an organization should be able to move independently of one another. Fewer dependencies, not more.

So instead of asking permission and or seeking orders, he told his sailors to come to him with intent. Instead of “Captain, may I turn the ship starboard 30 degrees?” (which asks for the Captain’s permission to OK the command), he wanted people to come to him saying “Captain, I’m going to turn the ship starboard 30 degrees.” In just a few words, everything’s different.

“May I?” pushes all the power and responsibility to the person granting the permission. “I’m going to” squarely puts the responsibility on the person who’s going to carry out the action. When the person doing the work is the person that has to live with the consequences, they tend to think more completely about what they’re about to do. They see it from more angles, they consider it differently, they’re more thoughtful about it because it’s ultimately on them. When you don’t have permission, it’s on you to make the call.

Now, Captain Marquet still often wanted to hear the intent — especially when the outcome affected the whole ship, and especially early on as he was implementing the new system — but ultimately this is about involving one brain less (Marquet’s), and a hundred brains more (the rest of the people on the ship).

As the CEO of Basecamp, I’ve taken this to heart. I’m still working on it — it’s a big shift at times and I often have to push back against some long-standing habits— but I don’t want people asking me for permission. In almost every case, if someone asks me for permission, something’s wrong.

People shouldn’t ask me if they can do this or that. I want people to tell me what they intend to do. If they want to hear my thoughts about their intention, let’s talk! Let’s riff! Let’s work through it. But don’t ask me if you can this or that — tell me what you’re going to so I can cheer you on, help you out, ask a question, or suggest another approach that may be worth considering. But if it won’t happen unless I say so, I won’t say so.

None of this means I don’t provide feedback, or direction, or guidance, or vision, or purpose. None of this means I can’t disagree — strongly at times. And none of this means if I see you’re about to jump off a cliff I won’t stop you.

But it does mean that generally, most of the time — and hopefully more and more of the time — people will get better and better at thinking things through completely, building the confidence to stand behind their convictions, and take full responsibility for the calls they make.

I’m not talking about a free-for-all. I’m talking about a think-for-all.

Of course there are always exceptions. Captain Marquet reserved one order for him and him alone — the order to kill. If the sub had to fire a weapon, if someone could die, it was his call. I’m still trying to figure out what my reserved orders are, but hopefully there are fewer and fewer over time.

If you haven’t read Turn The Ship Around, please do. It’s a wonderful, important book with great lessons and honest writing. I think you’ll really enjoy it.