Permissionless Progress

Permissionless Progress

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When we started The Dandelion Foundation, one unexpected realisation was that many people had ideas and answers for solving challenges in community, but they were waiting for permission (they didn’t need) to get started.

Many people had no frame of reference for having an idea, and just making it happen. I grew up in an entrepreneurial household, where ideas became reality with regularity – so I didn’t realise this behaviour was so prevalent, until I saw it first-hand. I remember us playfully  making a ‘permission granted’ stamp – just to give people the permission they didn’t really need! This symbolic permission helped to get a lot of people moving.

We try to build this ‘permissionless’ philosophy into everything we do. For instance, we don’t hold many meetings for The Dandelion Foundation. What we do have is ‘Confession’- when we get together every now and then, and confess all the things we have done since we last met. The purpose is to review and reflect on how we’ve made decisions, rather than create a meeting environment to make the actual decisions. As a network of volunteers with a big mission, we didn’t have the time and availability to be centrally organised, or agree actions by committee; so everyone has to operate with autonomy to make the progress we want.

To give you an idea of how this works, we run huge events like TEDxStPeterPort,  Thrive2020 and Journey to 100 without ever meeting as a full team of organisers. Every time we tried to arrange to meet, finding a time and date when we were all available would have taken many weeks. That was unworkable. We had to build a way of doing things that just let people get on with it. This process requires a lot of trust and commitment to a shared vision and set of principles, and requires all the individuals to feel comfortable with mistakes. Counterintuitively, this approach saves us much time while also allowing us to hit a very high quality bar.

One great phrase we use a lot is “seek forgiveness rather than permission”. Learning how to deal with things when they occasionally go wrong is a massively undeveloped art and skill. People who can deal with ‘doing things wrong’ make far more progress than those who avoid ever making any mistakes.

Asking for permission can also be a way of not taking responsibility. Unfortunately, when thinking like this pervades organisational culture, nobody wants to take any responsibility. It’s easier to say no.

As with many large organisations, governments are structured with layers and layers of gatekeeping. For good reason, they are designed to maintain the status quo and to be risk-averse. Whilst that has benefits, it makes it very difficult to get things done and for change to happen. Permission is very hard to get, because giving permission requires ownership and accountability.

Making progress can mean being playful with the rules – as two leaders who inspire me have been. Pam Warhurst from Incredible Edible plants fruit and vegetables in unloved public spaces, without permission. Jason Roberts from Build a Better Block temporarily transforms public spaces, challenging public ordinances that prevent community life. Ironically, both of these organisations’ founders are invited all over the world to inspire and advise projects. Being invited to do something is, of course, another permissionless process. They are smart people and organisations earning trust and social capital to do bigger things, without being subservient to the permission structures around them.The lesson is something my 2-year-old has already worked out – you get away with a lot more, with a mischievous smile on your face.

I would add a word of caution on this, as companies like Uber will testify. Much of the way Uber went about things was permissionless – and they deliberately broke the rules, to scale faster. Their ability to scale their work in communities, to the point that the public valued what they were offering before local government could do anything, is, on one level, smart corporate activism and on another, wreckless rule-breaking.  Uber became a macho, self-serving organisation; whereas Pam and Jason both use childlike playfulness to selflessly push the edge, on behalf of their own communities. Understanding the motivation and methods behind permissionless progress is very important, for it to be an effective strategy.

It isn’t necessarily about breaking the rules: this is about transforming culture in areas where rules don’t exist. In much of our work, we look to do things that change culture without requiring permission. We don’t need permission to run community events and bring to the island people who have solved problems like ours. We don’t need permission to have lots of conversations with people. All these things in themselves change culture, but they don’t actually require us to ask permission to move things forward.

Much of our advice and the solutions we bring to our community are bottom-up approaches that require little permission. Effective solutions are not necessarily the best ones in theory, but they are the best in application. The amount of permission needed is linked to how successful or speedy implementation can be.

I am not saying that asking permission is always bad. There are many contexts in which it is a very good thing. But culturally, we are all trained to seek permission far more than we realise. Many of our systems and structures are built to say no, rather than to find ways to say yes. As individuals, are we conditioned to inaction because of a fear of ‘just doing it’? Are we often waiting for permission? Be conscious of how this affects the way we do things, and understand where we might be creating our own invisible barriers to progress.

  • What is it you’re waiting for permission to start?
  • Do you really need anyone’s permission?
  • Is there a way of redesigning what you want to do – or changing the order in which you do things – to need less, or no, permission?
  • Without any need for permission – what can you do, to get things moving?

To making permissionless progress.


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