Monday, April 30, 2007

Making and obtaining effective promises--it's important and rare

OK, it's taken me an entire month, and my next issue of the Harvard Business Review is already in my mailbox, but I've finally absorbed the lessons in April's article entitled "Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution" (free link) by Donald Sull of the London Business School and Charles Spinosa of Vision Consulting.

The article contains straightforward advice on the importance of commitments to conducting business, as well as the poor way commitments are typically negotiated, with the expected result--nothing happens and negative surprises abound.

(Ever experience that at your workplace?)

By the way, straightforward doesn't mean simple to do. And that's the beauty of the article and why it's not something that sinks in over a quick read. Making and keeping (as well as obtaining) quality promises is very difficult, and poorly done at nearly all organizations.

And important too. With job specialization and matrix management, and especially today's alliance-based business environment, the potency of direct authority has waned. To get many things done at companies today, you need someone to agree to help you.

Sull and Spinosa give concrete examples of companies that use promises effectively. They also list five attributes of workable commitments:

  1. Public--good promises are shared outside the requester and provider
  2. Active--they are negotiated, but not part of prolonged debates (best quote: "Conversations should comprise offers, counteroffers, commitments and refusals rather than endless assertions about the state of nature")
  3. Voluntary--people who promise under duress don't feel obligated to deliver
  4. Explicit--commitments are clearly described and progress tracked
  5. Mission-based--requests are put in the context of strategy and objectives, so that providers know why the request matters
(Photo by pixelstar via stock.xchng)

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