Don’t ask for forgiveness, radiate intent


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.