Captain May I? Weak Intent is Destroying Innovation

business analysis intent captain

I believe there are two kinds of people in this life.  Those that ask for permission to do something (Let’s call them the “Captain May I?” group) and those that bluntly state their intentions (Let’s call them “I Intend To” group).  The difference between these two groups of people is rather subtle but distinct.  

The “Captain May I?” group is always seeking to ask for permission. They start the conversation without intent or desired outcomes.  The responsibility for the decision to start, change or do anything is passed on to someone else.  This group takes no responsibility for their actions because since they have taken no responsibility or provided intent, the failure or success rests on someone else’s shoulders.  At this point as a leader, you are forced into ownership of the innovation idea and vetting it out.  This group typically doesn’t think through the idea and provides a little insight.  As a manager, it not easy to work with groups in this category.  They never take it upon themselves to make any decisions.  Everything goes up the chain of command and as a leader of these types of groups, your day is spent in constant decision mode.  As the leader, you become the bottleneck.

Now try and run an Agile project using the “Captain May I?” group and you will quickly discover how easy it is to become a micro-manager.  It’s impossible to juggle the all the decision making with one person who doesn’t have the practical experience of working with a system or process on a day to day.  It’s no wonder that many Agile teams in organizations are more costly, slower and more ineffective then a waterfall team.  

Organizations that fall into the “Captain May I?” side of the world are easy to spot.  You need 20 people in a room to formally bless the startup, signatures on documents, and very formalized processes for gaining approval on making decisions of all levels from the very large or the small.  I am not advocating the removal of all approvals.  As a business owner and CFO, I do expect to be asked for permission when large amounts of money are going to spent, any changes to our organizational structure and entering new marketplaces with new products.  The rest of the decisions are made by those small teams running the day to day operations and improving our products.

The “I Intend to” group is a complete opposite of the previous group.  At the start of the conversation, their intention is stated directly, “I intend to change the shipping process by upgrading the package handling equipment to reduce congestion that is causing frustration for the team.”  When a member comes to me their leader, they are not asking for my permission.  They are asking for my thoughts and feedback on the issue.  They come prepared with well thought out ideas and structure.  They are asking for my feedback, my experience, and perspective of their intent.  The conversation with this group is different primarily in I’m doing a lot more listening and asking questions.  The responsibility for the process or system change is theirs.  As a leader I don’t feel I own the change, I feel I’m supporting it with my guidance.  I have a lot more trust developed in this situation.

Running an Agile project with this type of group is awesome.  This group takes the ownership and moves it forward.  The accept the responsibility of the good and the bad.  This group is very energized and passionate.  From a leadership perspective, these are the people I love to have onboard.  They bring new ideas and innovation to me constantly.  Permission isn’t asked for at all.  This group asks for support and assistance – not permission.

Strong intent doesn’t override the organization's mission and vision.  Organizations are the wild west with a bunch of gunslingers walking around.  Prioritization and structure need to be in place, and both are easily maintained when the mission and vision are clearly understood and communication or the entire organization.  I think decisions on Prioritization and the Vision of the organization are reserved decisions that are made by the organization’s leadership.

It could be argued that organizations that are successful with Agile have individuals with strong intent.  Here's a few take aways:

  • Don’t ask for permission – come with intent
  • Ask for feedback on your intentions and be prepared to answer questions about your intentions
  • Understand there are reserved decisions usually around prioritization and vision that are out of your hands and the chain of leadership must be respected
  • Understand the problem and solution fully, then make the change
  • Take ownership and responsibility for your actions whether they are good or bad