A recent Lifehacker article explained the “bootlegger’s K-turn,” a driving tactic that was used to quickly reverse direction and make a fast getaway from the cops, as explained to Brooke Allen by a Prohibition-era bootlegger he had met in the 70’s.
Ironically, this was the least interesting part of Brooke Allen’s complete article. His encounter with that ex-bootlegger also included a key life lesson that served him well throughout his business career.
When FDR brought an end to Prohibition, that bootlegger – Allen called him “Jeb” – had to find new work. Pickings were slim; Jeb finally found a mundane job as a factory drill press operator. To deal with the monotony, he’d think of different ways to improve the drill press. Finally he mustered up the courage to ask the factory owner if he could share his ideas:
After a few years he screwed up the courage to ask the owner, “May I ask a question?”
The owner laughed, “You don’t need permission to ask a question.”
… It turned out Jeb’s idea made the drill-press much more efficient. Jeb was about to go back to work when the owner said, “Why don’t I put you on another machine and let’s see what you come up with.”
In short order he’d invented all kinds of better ways of making things and soon he was even inventing whole new things to make. The owner gave him piles of money and Jeb was very happy.
“I never asked for permission to be a bootlegger because I knew it was the wrong thing to do,” Jeb told Allen. “But, I didn’t become inventive until I learned that I don’t need permission to do the right thing.”
Brooke Allen took away this key life lesson: You do not need permission to do the right thing. Knowing this simple fact is essential for any true innovation to take place. Innovation, by definition, is an act of “intelligent disobedience.” It is unafraid to question the status quo; it unashamedly asks, “What if…?”
I’d also add a big thumbs-up for the factory owner who had the sense to not only listen to Jeb’s idea, but to also encourage Jeb to discover new ideas and share the financial rewards with him. The owner demonstrated business sense that is lacking in too many corporate “leaders” today.
An empty suit of a “leader” probably would just used Jeb’s first idea to make or save money without even a thank you (just like this example); or simply shooed Jeb back to his drill press with a “We don’t pay you to think!” or some other jerk statement.
Poor leaders can go a very long way to discourage innovation; however, that doesn’t change the fact that you don’t need permission to innovate. Lousy leaders who think nothing upsets the status quo without their blessing are kidding themselves. Under their noses, innovations are taking place in the form of secret skunkworks projects, workarounds and hacks that enable workers to sidestep red tape and self-important gatekeepers while also keeping their personal sanity!
Now imagine how well such a company could perform if innovation wasn’t driven underground by its own “leaders.”
Bottom line, you do not need “permission” to freely assess “the way things are” and envision “the way things could be.” Recognizing this universal truth might be the “bootlegger K-turn” you need to make a clean getaway from an innovation-hostile, “potted plant” organization and towards organizations and true leaders that actively encourage and reward innovation.
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