Ask for forgiveness, not permission – a cultural model

Apr 24   •  Culture

What does Grace Hopper have to do with this model?

Grace Hopper was one of the main pioneers of computers. In addition to this, she also put the quote that she came up with into practice. The quote she came up with is “It’s better to get forgiveness than permission”. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs in history have adopted this quote into their very being.

If you’re not familiar with Grace, here’s a quick rundown of why she’s infamous in U.S. history. Grace Hopper was born in 1996. She then went on to earn a Ph.D. from Yale and worked on the U.S. military’s Mark 1 proto-computer project at Harvard during World War 2. While doing so, she developed the first compiler. Eventually, Grace Hopper took a giant leap forward for all women when she was promoted to rear admiral in the U.S Navy. She was infamously known as “Amazing Grace.”

What makes her story even more amazing is that she did all of this in a time when women weren’t accepted by many in the academic field. At the time, women weren’t embraced in other areas such as mathematics and as military officers. At the time, 99.9% of Americans hadn’t even seen a computer.

A fun tidbit of knowledge is that when President Barack Obama spoke about Grace Hopper in the State of Union, Google searches of her name experienced an upwards spike.

It’s hard to find evidence of when Grace Hopper began saying this critical quote. However, if you search over the internet, you’ll find plenty of references to Hopper being the first person to have said it. At the very least, she was the one who popularized it.

The phrase is often misunderstood to mean doing things that are illegal or immoral. What the phrase is really about is to not wait for someone else’s approval to do the things that you have to do so that you can succeed.

Infamous examples of this cultural model being used

As already mentioned, it’s a famous mantra by many high-performing entrepreneurs. Mark Suster, author of Both Sides of the Table has said that he has always believed in the saying that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. He explained that it’s a way of life and that it isn’t about abusing situations but about knowing when to push boundaries. In addition to this, it’s about knowing when most of the people in life are naysayers. He further elaborated by saying that sometimes, you need to roll the dice and say WTF.

The people behind AngelList also have an interesting take on the cultural model of asking for forgiveness and not permission. They explained that AngelList’s corporate policy is that team members should ask for forgiveness and not for approval. The company would rather someone did something wrong and not ask for permission to do it. In the same vein, they’d instead a team member does something right and not have to feel the need to ask for permission for it.

The team further elaborated that they’d rather have people ship to production whenever they wanted to rather than go through an internal review process. They know that they can fix it on production. However, they prefer the customer’s review process. It also isn’t hard to reveal a new feature to a small segment of their users and then iterate on it as they take it to more users.

Here’s how this cultural model works

This policy falls apart if you don’t hire smart, capable and independent people. You have to be prepared to let go of the people who don’t fit the bill. Your filter should also include people who are mission-oriented, care about your customers and would like to learn more.

It also doesn’t mean that the founders, CEOs and other higher-ups are standing over your desk telling you things like, “this isn’t good enough to ship”.

This cultural model goes hand-in-hand with the following.

Your mess-up, your responsibility

Similar to the rule if you break it, you bought it rule employed by many retailers, if your stuff is buggy or you break something, you have a responsibility to fix it right away.

You have to sweat the details

When your business works on the idea that you’re going ship whatever you’d like, you need to take time to worry about the details so that you avoid making mistakes. The best way of going about this is by making sure that the rest of your team is continually complaining or in more beautiful words, “creating opportunities for improvement.”

As already mentioned, mistakes are fine in this cultural model. However, people need to sweat the details because the details are what will make the product stand out from the rest.

Treat your users like real people

When people are given full reign to ship whatever they’d like, whenever they’d like, one way about making good decisions is by asking them to be real. Being real in terms of treating users like real people. Furthermore, treat your teammates like real people instead of mindless machines. You need to be real and always look at doing the right thing.

Freedom and Responsibility

All of these principles work on variations of responsibility and freedom. All of this wasn’t invented today, and it isn’t all set in stone.


  • Ask for forgiveness not permission
  • Do right by others and yourself (make sure that you are right)


  • You mess-up, your responsibility
  • You have to sweat the details
  • Treat your users like real people
  • Own the result

The next time you’re wondering whether to take that next step that might take you forward in whatever you’re doing, as Nike would say, do it.

Most older people say that their regrets consist of things they didn’t do rather than things they did. Just do it and worry about the niceties later. And when all is said and done, raise your glass to Admiral ‘Amazing Grace’ Hopper.






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