Making Unreasonable Requests: The Big Ask

Posted Monday, August 6, 2012

By Dr. Allen Slade, ACC

Usually, I recommend SMART requests: requests that are specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-bound. But should a leader’s requests always be realistic? According to Kim Krisco, a leader accelerates change with unreasonable requests:

The primary speech act that creates action and increases velocity is the request. The more requests, the more action and change. The more unreasonable the requests, the greater the change. Indeed, you might say that the function of a leader is to make unreasonable requests.

An unreasonable request is a big ask. When should leaders make the big ask?

Bottom line: I believe you should use the big ask rarely, and well.

A big ask is a stretch for the other party. Make sure you have the creditability to make it stick. If you make the big ask too often, you will undermine your credibility as a leader and your future requests will have less impact. You must prove that signing up for your big ask is a good idea – your request will pay off for the organization and for the other person. A big ask, if accepted by the other party and mutually beneficial when fulfilled, can add to your creditability. If the check is accepted, and it cashes, you get another blank check.

You must be especially well prepared for the big ask. The big ask should be given only when you are at a peak level of leadership presence – passion and purpose, emotions, body, relationships all need to be in congruence with the big ask.

The big ask is a declaration which can create a bold, new future. In 1961, John Kennedy declared “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Most requests should be realistic. But realistic requests would not have gotten Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969. The big ask should be used rarely, and well.

Leaders should be able to make the big ask. They should also encourage risk taking by supporting the big asks of others. Soon after I started at IBM, my manager said to me “Allen, you get one blank check. If I don’t agree and you insist, I will back you. But only once. If that check cashes, I will give you another blank check.” In effect, he advanced decision making credibility to me, despite my lack of experience. He encouraged me to make the big ask, but to make it rarely and well.

Do you insist that people prove their credibility before you will take a risk on their decision making? Try advancing some decision credit instead. It can be scary to give up control, so you can start with just one blank check. See what happens when you back someone’s big ask. The spark of initiative that results may flame into a bonfire of innovation.

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