How to Innovate: Ask Forgiveness, Not Permission

Teachers often tell me that they’d love to be innovative. They’ve got a great idea that’s going to totally change their classroom/department/school. Students are going to love it, it’s going to improve their grades and there’s even some 21st century skills in there!

But there’s a problem. They’ve run it by their boss and their boss said no. The boss says it’s a bad idea because, x, y and z.

This is a common issue, but there really is a very simple solution.

Stop running stuff by your boss!

How I accidentally broke the rules

A few years ago now, I decided I wanted to trying doing a kind “flipped learning thing with videos”. I didn’t really tell anyone about it, maybe because I was a bit shy about the whole thing. But I filmed a few videos, I uploaded them to youtube and shared them to my students. The impact was immediate. Students loved, parents loved and my bosses loved it!

You can click here,to read some blog posts about how awesome it’s been.

Later, in that same school, a fellow teacher said she’d asked her line manager whether she could try some flipped learning a year earlier.

She was told NO!

No is the default

It’s not difficult to see why she was told no. There’s all sorts of reasons making videos is a terrible idea.

  • Students won’t watch them.
  • Students will become dependent on them.
  • If you make a mistake in the video parents will see.
  • Uploading to youtube is a privacy issue.
  • Nobody has done that here before.

Everybody has  a reason for why something won’t work. Right up until it does.

It’s your idea, you’ll make it work

Concerns about your fantastic idea are valid. There are barriers to making all great things work. When your boss says, “we shouldn’t do that because of x, y, z”, they aren’t lying. A new initiative is hard, it’s going to have teething issues, you’re going to have to clear some hurdles.

But, you will clear those hurdles! It’s your idea and you’ll make it work. You own this idea and you’re invested in its success. You’ll get it done, even if you do need to put out a few fires along the way.

And once you make it work something magical happens. Those same bosses that would have told you no if you’d asked them, will be saying “that was a great idea, great job.”

Ask forgiveness. Not permission.

This might sound rebellious but it really isn’t. As long as you follow a few simple rules you’re in the clear.

Rule 1. Don’t ask permission

I know it sounds like I’m repeating myself here, but this is the most important first step. If we ask permission, and our boss says no, DON’T DO IT! We’re trying to be innovative here, not insubordinate!

If we made the mistake of asking permission, this idea is a lost cause for now. Let’s go away, regroup and have a different awesome idea. Once we have that second different idea, do not ask permission!

Rule 2. Have good ideas

We need to be absolutely, 100% convinced that this is an idea worth doing. Because we’re not asking permission, we need to be certain that when we do eventually pull this thing off, people will love it!

Not sure if it’s a good idea. Here’s a blog post I wrote a while ago about how to have a good idea.

Rule 3. You need to be able to make it happen alone

We haven’t asked for permission, so we can’t very well ask for some staffing for this idea, can we? When you’re being a maverick, you’re going to have to go solo.

Is this job too big for one person? Maybe we can start off small, prove it’s a success THEN ask for forgiveness AND a bit of help. Do we need staff to help us, or could an army of students help (most innovations are made better when we involve students!). If we absolutely need another staff member, is there anybody that owes us a favour? Or maybe they can be bribed with a bottle of wine?

Rule 4. It needs to be cheap

We didn’t ask for permission so we probably don’t have a budget! If we need to buy something special for this idea, we better start asking around. You’ll be surprised what’s lurking in cupboards and staff rooms around the school. Need a microphone, get chummy with the music department. Need a camera, usually humanities or PE has one somewhere.

You might be so jazzed about your idea that you decide to dip into your own pocket. When I decided I wanted to make a lightboard, that’s exactly what I did. I built my own for approximately $300 (click the link to see how). I then came into work one Saturday and installed it in a room not much larger than a cupboard. Nobody knew it existed until it was already a fixture! 

Rule 5. Gather Data

What are we trying to solve with this brilliant idea? Improving student’s study habits? Encouraging recycling around the school? Giving feedback in a better and more awesome way?

Before we start, let’s ask ourselves how we’ll know this brilliant idea has worked? And how will we convince others that it’s worked? Maybe we should do a survey of students before we do it, then after we do it. Evidence is awesome, because when somebody eventually catches wind of what we’re doing, we’re going to want evidence that it’s working!

Rule 6. Don’t be scared to Pivot

Because we’re going solo on this, it means we’re running an extremely agile operation here. If things aren’t going as you thought they might, don’t be scared to pivot! The pivot is a signature move of tech companies in silicon valley.

Maybe our idea started out as a weekly student wellness survey but not many students were engaging in it. But maybe the ones who did engage said they were desperate for the school to offer Yoga.

Then congratulations, you’re out of the survey business and you’re in the Yoga business!

A pivot is not a failure, it’s innovation!

Final thoughts

The title of this blog post is “How to Innovate by Asking Forgiveness, not Permission”. The really nice thing about working this way is that you wont have to ask permission, but you very rarely will have to ask for forgiveness either! All people will see is an happy students, innovative practice and a teacher who was willing to take a risk.

So what’s your good idea?


  1. Take students to read to elderly people in nursing homes … I ran it by my committee, no one was a fan. I am yet to ask the boss. I think it would be amazing.

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