Most of us have found ourselves in situations where we need someone’s approval to get something done, but we can’t seem to get them to respond.  It would be okay if they said no.  It would be better if they said yes.  We just need an answer yet we can’t get one.  One tactic is to just go ahead and do what you wanted.  This has the tendency to come back and bite us if things go wrong though.  A slightly better tactic is to send mail that says something like this:

On the issue at hand, I recommend taking the following actions.  If I don’t hear from you by such and such a date, I’ll move ahead with my recommendations.

This has the benefit of a paper trail. When things go wrongly, you’ll be able to point to this mail and say, “You had a chance to voice your opinion and didn’t.”  I’ll call this strategy getting tacit approval.  The approval is implied.

For some types of decisions, this is enough.  I’ve seen it employed well in situations where one party is being obstructionist via delay or where someone has authority but doesn’t really have a stake in the outcome.  It can work well when trying to get architectural approval for your design.  In the situations where tacit approval works well, you are always the active party and you merely need permission to move forward.

There is another situation where this is often employed and almost always to the tune of failure.  These are situations where you are not the active party.  Instead, you need someone else to do the work.  You’ll define what it is, but you are reliant upon their active participation for things to get done.  A good example would be if you are a release manager and need people to do certain work before the product releases.  You may send out mail explaining what is required and asking for comments.  If, however, you hear nothing back, you didn’t just receive approval.  This is true even if you say “If you disagree, you need to object by this date.” 

The problem is often that people are just too busy.  Too much e-mail is sent.  Too many requirements are put forward by too many disparate groups.  If you don’t hear anything back, it more likely means the message wasn’t received than that it was tacitly approved.  Assuming that silence means approval sets you up for failure.  I’ve seen this happen.  One group I worked with sent out instructions for how to interact with them.  If we didn’t like this, we had to disagree by a certain date.  They did this at a time when everyone was busy doing something else. Then, months later when it came time to finally pay attention to their part of the product, everyone came back with complaints.  They just thought we did.

The solution is to seek expressed approval instead.  Sometimes this can be hard.  The first requests for assent fall on seemingly deaf ears.  If you want to make sure your decision sticks, you need to persist.  If someone has not expressly stated that they agree with your proposal, the chances that they will take actions to being it to fruition are between zero and none.  It is worth the time and effort required to get explicit buy-in when you require the active participation of another party.