Seeking permission, or feedback?

Agile, Culture, Empowerment, feedback, Leadership, Organisation, Ownership

Let’s start with a scenario: I have a suggestion for an improvement we could make. I think it's a great idea, but it involves other people and will incur costs (at least in terms of work hours). Thus I need to talk to others about it. Essentially, I have two possible modes:

  • Permission mode: I approach the other person with the intent of getting their implicit or explicit permission to continue with the idea, and if the other person doesn't like the idea, I drop it.
  • Feedback mode: I approach the other person to elicit feedback for my idea in order to improve it and take it further myself, and I drop the idea only if I don't like it anymore.

(For this blog post, I’m purposefully ignoring a third possible mode - Command mode - because that assumes power over the other individuals. Unsurprisingly, using Command mode easily causes others to apply Permission mode in their communication with that person.)

During the early years of my career, due to my lack of experience, I was unsure of my ideas and was not used to taking ownership of them. I felt I wasn’t permitted to develop my ideas without the approval of someone above me, especially if it involved direct expenses. Thus, I very easily fell into Permission mode.

But even now, being much older and more experienced, I still recognize myself using Permission mode in some conversations, and not only with people “above me in hierarchy”. I am increasingly annoyed by this and am working on changing all my communication to Feedback mode.

When using Feedback mode, I still maintain ownership of the issue and am looking for feedback to refine it. Others don't have to like it for me to continue with the idea. Their dislike may (and usually does) indicate things that I didn't take into account, but it could also be due to them not seeing the whole story the way that I do. The issue is the same in product development; customers give feedback and that feedback has value, but individually, each user only sees part of the big picture - it's up to the product owner to own the product, and to see a bigger picture.

Using Feedback mode is very important to me. It helps me empower myself, and drive issues that I believe are important. I will also be happier as I feel more in control of my work and decisions. And thirdly, in order for an organization to achieve agility and effectiveness, I believe the communication in that organisation has to primarily be in Feedback mode.

Safety vs. Engagement

Unfortunately, Permission and Feedback conversations look and sound very similar. The difference exists mostly in our own heads.

Permission mode is safer - it externalizes responsibility. And in many organizations, survival is about not getting negative attention. These organizational cultures are keen on finding the guilty person, and blame is placed on the person who failed. Or maybe failure is rewarded by being fired, or losing career opportunities. Regardless of the reason, "safe" is somewhere where blame cannot be attributed to you.

Feedback mode is riskier - a person puts his or her neck on the line. You must have confidence in your ability to make good decisions and correctly weigh the value of feedback. You also have to judge when you’ve gathered enough feedback from other stakeholders, since (in large decisions) you also need to garner appropriate support.

For organisations, the problem is that there is a large (mostly hidden) cost associated with Permission mode. When it is the dominant mode, the people in the organisation are likely to hide information, either to protect themselves or to generate leverage. Failure becomes very dangerous, and a lot of effort is put into denying the failure or to shifting blame to others. Hierarchy and power structures become central to people’s focus, and people in established “power positions” see the status quo as very attractive to them.

All of the above detract from the organisation’s ability to delight customers, deliver value, and compete in a changing marketplace. The organisation easily becomes calcified.

Building a Feedback mode culture

To build a Feedback mode culture, two cultural qualities trump others - safety to experiment, and empowerment to try things out.

While no-one seeks to fail, a lot of ideas just don't work. Many ideas are good on paper (like Marx's communism), but fail in real life. And it’s okay to discover something doesn’t work. Quoting Thomas A. Edison, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” But what should not be accepted are making mistakes more expensive than they have to be, reacting slowly to them once identified, and repeating the same mistakes.

In Feedback mode organisations, leaders act more like coaches than managers. They encourage people to try things out, and challenge the people to find effective ways of validating their ideas quickly so that possible failure doesn't become too costly. They have to push back against Permission mode by rejecting the offered power position in their communication and coaching the other person to maintain ownership and responsibility.

Peers also have to communicate differently. When someone notices another person using Permission mode on them, they have to reject the power and guide the conversation to Feedback mode. This may sometimes be very hard to recognize and do, but being aware of the different modes and their impact should help. And if the leaders do this, others are likely to copy the same communication style.

Feedback mode in practice

I used to think giving everyone a company credit card and allowing them to decide how to use it (without pre- or post-approval) was a good way of removing waste related to purchase processing at Futurice (and still do), but I no longer think it's the most important reason for the policy. It is an example of Feedback mode in practice.

While Futurice’s credit card policy is only one possible practice, empowering people for independent action is a necessary part of achieving a Feedback mode culture. As long as an organization maintains managerial control of expenses, it is forcing Permission mode communication for the majority of its employees. It’s very hard to use Feedback mode when one doesn’t have the right to act on one’s decisions. It’s also very hard for the organisational leaders to encourage independent action, since they often subject to similar approval process, too.

Even though moving your culture from Permission mode to Feedback mode is challenging and time consuming, I strongly recommend organisations to start looking for ways in which they can increase individual initiative and action in the organisation. The first step is to start removing, or changing, managerial processes that force people to seek approval for their work. The second step is to help leaders learn ways in which they can constructively coach people in their daily activities. After this, a bit of retrospection is in place to discover further actions.

On an individual level, anyone can start improving the way they interact with others. How often do you seek approval over feedback? How can you minimize these situations? In what way should you change your language or mindset? Do you notice others seeking approval from you? Is the way you communicate causing that? Reflecting on questions such as these is a good starting point. Then consciously start adjusting your communication and behavior.

And remember, this stuff is mostly in your head. It’s more about you than your environment.