Most of the vexing challenges leaders face – improperly executed strategy, lack of organizational agility, disengaged employees, and so on – stem from broken or poorly crafted commitments. Executives can overcome some of their thorniest problems in the short term and foster productive, reliable workforces for the long term by practicing what we call ‘promise-based management’: cultivating and coordinating commitments in a systematic way.
I came across this article written by Sull and Spinosa, Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution, in the April edition of the HBR and was fascinated by its title. As I read the article I began to reflect on my own personal experiences with the organizations that I have worked for, and with my own staff. I agree that one of the quickest ways to take the wind out of a person’s sails is to break a commitment – especially one that was made publicly. Most employees realize that in business, as in life, that change is one of the few constants. With that said, it is hard to justify breaking a promise that was made without adequately considering the impact. I am suggesting that there are those around us who are “serial committers” – they always say yes and rarely say no, even when they should. These individuals become so engulfed by the shear number of commitments that they have made that it becomes impossible for them to execute on any of them, at least not effectively.
I found Sull and Spinosa’s five characteristics of good promises particularly interesting. They define good promises as those that individuals are committed to keeping. And point out that they are:
- Public – promises that are made, monitored, and completed in public are more binding.
- Active – negotiating a commitment should be an active, collaborative process.
- Voluntary – effective promises are not coerced.
- Explicit – requests must be clear from the start.
- Mission based – explanation of why the commitment matters.
In conclusion, it is time for us to retrain our staff, colleagues and senior executives that it is completely appropriate – if not valuable to the organization – to say no. Or looking at it a different way, to put the commitment on hold until there is ample time to evaluate the entirety of what is being requested, and its impact on the organization. It would provide us all with the requisite time to evaluate what the impact would be if the promise is not acted upon.