Asking for permission

It may seem odd, but I enjoy working with big companies. More precisely, I enjoy helping the people who work there. Having been an employee in large corporations for decades, I can relate to what employees experience. I know the many slings and arrows they have to face in the workplace, and how they can affect you over time.

One of those things is having to ask for permission.

No good deed…

Not all companies are the same, of course. But there seems to be a mania about control, about the manager having to know and approve of what each of his direct reports (ah, the military language!) is doing.

Sometimes it’s about money. Can I buy pizza for my team to celebrate our milestone? Sometimes it’s about time. I’ve been invited to a free conference to learn from other companies. May I go? Sometimes, it’s just about control.

One time I was invited to give a talk related to my project at another location in my company. My division had announced a travel freeze, so I told the host she would have to pay expenses, which she did. The morning of my talk, though, I received frantic calls and emails from my boss at 7am. It turns out his boss (who, ironically, was traveling) wanted to know why I was in another city. When I explained how the event related to our goals and that there were no expenses involved, the objection they raised was that I hadn’t asked for permission - and that it should never happen again. 

The new normal

At the time, I thought perhaps this was about me or about a dysfunctional organization. But now that I’m working with a wide range of companies, I see that it’s quite normal. 

I see how the very same companies who want more innovative, agile cultures are the ones that systematically rob people of control, either through their policies or through the caprice of managers trying to validate their position in the hierarchy. I see how experienced, talented employees who desperately want to do good work are forced to ask permission for even the simplest of things.

What choice do you have? 

You probably know some exceptions, the kinds of people who would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. I’m thinking of notable examples like Celine Schillinger at Sanofi, Harald Schirmer at Continental, and Katharina Krentz at Bosch. I know that each of them has faced resistance in the pursuit of doing meaningful, important work. Yet they’ve all found a way to do it and lead change. Over time, by working in an open, connected way, they’ve become fantastic ambassadors for their companies.

They are indeed exceptional. But what about everyone else?

If you’re a manager, you might start by asking yourself a question the next time you feel the need for control: Is this necessary? Rules and policies are fine, but stifling creativity and engagement hurts everyone, including managers. 

If you’re an employee trying to do good work despite the constraints, look to people who are already finding a way to do it. Their openness and consistent contributions over time are what provide them with some level of career insurance. After all, it’s harder to punish someone whose contributions are publicly validated by others. Also, their larger personal networks give them options, and thus more control of their own careers.

Several companies I work with are genuinely trying to create corporate cultures that are more innovative, that encourage more experimentation and a bias to action. To achieve that, we’ll need a different kind of permission, the kind that says, “I trust you to do what you think is right. Please go ahead.”

The Köln Concert

I have listened to the recording hundreds of times. It was the music that kept me calm and focused as I wrote a book. While I knew “The Köln Concert” was the best-selling piano album of all time, I only recently heard the fascinating story of what happened the day of the concert. How it almost never happened, and how a critical mistake shaped the music.

When I was in Köln last weekend, I made a trip just to see where it all took place.

Keith Jarrett playing the Köln Concert

Arriving at the Opera House

It was a Friday in late January, 1975. The concert was scheduled to start at 11:30pm, after an opera. Despite the late hour and that it would be the first-ever jazz concert at the Opera House, the concert was sold out, and 1400 tickets had been sold. Jarrett was 29 years old.

He arrived at the opera house late in the afternoon after a long drive. Suffering from back problems, he had to wear a brace. He was led into the auditorium by the concert promoter, Vera Brandes, who was just 17 years old. She had specified “a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano” to be used for the performance. However, the opera house staff mistakenly selected a much smaller Bösendorfer piano that was backstage.

“The piano they had was intended for rehearsals only and was in poor condition and required several hours of tuning and adjusting to make it playable. The instrument was tinny and thin in the upper registers and weak in the bass register, and the pedals did not work properly.”

A young woman’s plea

Tim Harford, in his TED talk, describes Jarrett’s reaction:

“Jarrett looked to the instrument a little warily, played a few notes, walked around it, played a few more notes, muttered something to his producer. Then the producer came over to Vera and said ... ‘If you don't get a new piano, Keith can't play.’"

Keith went outside and sat in his car, while Brandes scrambled to find a solution. But there wasn’t enough time to get another piano delivered to the hall. The concert was just hours away.

“So she went outside and she stood there in the rain, talking to Keith Jarrett, begging him not to cancel the concert. And he looked out of his car at this bedraggled, rain-drenched German teenager, took pity on her, and said, ‘Never forget ... only for you.’”

Playing with constraints

Because the piano was small and because certain registers didn’t have the right sound, Jarrett played differently.

“Avoiding those upper registers, he was sticking to the middle tones of the keyboard, which gave the piece a soothing, ambient quality. But also, because the piano was so quiet, he had to set up these rumbling, repetitive riffs in the bass. And he stood up twisting, pounding down on the keys, desperately trying to create enough volume to reach the people in the back row.

It's an electrifying performance. It somehow has this peaceful quality, and at the same time it's full of energy, it's dynamic. And the audience loved it.”

I still listen to the Köln Concert when I write, but it has a different effect on me since I heard this story. I see the creative act less as striving for perfection - as if you could even define that - than as making the most of what you have, using it in novel ways. When life hands you a bad piano, you can choose to walk away, or you can try to make art.

Ask Me Anything (or how to steal the best ideas for making work better)

An excellent book on creativity One of the best books I’ve read about being creative is “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon. It’s a short book, more graphic novel than academic text. And it begins with a basic truth about art that can apply to work:

“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before...Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.”

Find good ideas, steal them, and build on them.

When it comes to making work more effective and fulfilling, that turns out to be excellent advice. And the place to steal things from, of course, is the Internet.

Here’s an example.

A typical collaboration problem

Almost anyone with a collaboration platform at work will talk about the importance of having senior people use it. Just their presence online, modeling the behaviors they’d like to see in others, is a powerful source of influence. And getting them to recognize people and interact with them can improve overall employee engagement.

But how do you get busy, skeptical, executives to participate? And, even harder, how do you get them to participate in a way that’s personal and avoids the usual corporate-speak?

Ask Me Anything

reddit icon

A solution to this problem can be found on reddit.com (“the front page of the Internet”). Reddit lets users contribute content and then vote up and down on content and comments as a way to filter what’s interesting. Of the many memes you’ll see on reddit, one of the more popular ones is Ask Me Anything or AMA.

On Reddit, a wide range of people conduct in-depth, open discussions. You might talk to famous people (Arnold Schwarzenegger or Louis CK) or just people with interesting perspectives (an accident victim or astronaut). Then, last August, Barack Obama conducted an AMA.

“Hi, I’m Barack Obama, President of the United States. Ask me anything.”

Over 3 million people viewed the discussion that day. Reddit users of all ages across the world were interacting with the President, asking questions about everything from campaign finance reform to his favorite basketball player (“Jordan - I’m a Bulls guy.”) His last update summed up why participated and why he thought it was important.

“LAST UPDATE: I need to get going so I'm back in DC in time for dinner. But I want to thank everybody at reddit for participating - this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run. AND REMEMBER TO VOTE IN NOVEMBER - if you need to know how to register, go to http://gottaregister.com. By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience - NOT BAD!”

If the leader of the free world could engage his audience using social platforms, then even the most senior executive could do it. It showed how you could be personal and serious at the same time while still being purposeful and getting your message out.

Making the idea your own

Most companies have some kind of management Q&A at work, but most are scripted, edited, impersonal and limited to a few participants. One day, though, a manager at work conducted an open, on-line Q&A using our social platform. That sparked an idea.

Someone in another city noticed that the style of the on-line Q&A was just like an AMA. He started to spread the word and wrote up some helpful guidelines, including an AMA website. A few more managers saw that, liked the idea, and held their own AMAs.

The name stuck. Then the Communications teams saw it and institutionalized it, further developing some processes and enlisting yet more managers. Not everyone needed the extra help, but having it available made it easy for many more managers to participate. Within a few months, dozens of managers across 5 different divisions held AMAs and dozens more are planned. There were thousands and thousands of comments and Likes.

And the best part was seeing people tag the conversations with words like #engaging, #human, #authentic, and #genuine. When have you heard word like that used to describe senior management?

Becoming a student of the Internet

To change how executives interact with people at work, we didn’t have to come up with a new idea. We simply stole AMAs, changed the format a bit, and added some helpful guidelines. The innovation wasn’t the idea. It was applying the idea at work.

The same can be true for improving projectstraining, or developing talent. For coming up with new ideas or cutting costs or changing behaviors. For pretty much any problem at work you can think of, there’s a solution on the Internet that can help.

So, as Austin Kleon advises, steal like an artist. If you’re trying to make work better, scour the Internet for good ideas and build on them until you’ve made your own art for you and your firm.