I read a great blog post written by Brooke Allen describing how a chance encounter decades ago with an ex-Prohibition-era bootlegger provided a key life lesson that served him well throughout his business career.
The ex-bootlegger – Brooke Allen called him “Jeb” – began by chatting about such tricks of the bootlegging trade as the “bootlegger’s K-turn,” a driving tactic used to escape hot pursuit by police by quickly reversing direction.
When FDR brought an end to Prohibition, Jeb needed to find new work. He finally found a mundane job working as a factory drill press operator. To deal with the monotony, he would think about how he could improve the drill press.
Finally, Jeb 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 [an inventor] until I learned that I don’t need permission to do the right thing.”
Brooke Allen took away that 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 have just used Jeb’s first idea to make or save money without so much as a thank you (just like this example); or simply marched Jeb back to his drill press saying something like, “We don’t pay you to think!”
A bad boss can indeed go a 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 a “potted plant” organization and towards organizations and true leaders that actively encourage and reward innovation.
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