Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Making and keeping commitments: a must for success in business

In a brief but potent post, professional-services expert David Maister points out the importance of keeping commitments. (I touched on this topic in an earlier post.) Writes Maister,

It is OK to need more time as long as you ask for it ahead of time. It is OK to struggle and ask for help.

It is not OK to break your commitments. The fastest and surest way to fail is to break your word.

It's a concept so basic as to seem trivial--yet the inability to create and honor commitments between co-workers, between managers and workers, and between workers and clients destroys value every single day, in every company, all over the world.

Maister focuses on one side--the responsibility of the assigned party to honor commitments. The other side also has responsibilities. Often people ask for commitments in a wishy-washy manner, which at minimum creates confusion and ambiguity, or at worst enables commitment-phobes to feign performance by using ambiguity as a rationale for non-action. Here are some examples:

  1. Manager A sends out a note to entire team asking for something to be done.
  2. Worker B sends email to co-worker, stating, "It would be great if you could do task X by next Friday. If I don't hear from you by tomorrow I'll assume that's OK."
  3. Client C makes the same demand several times, ignoring any counter-proposals made in the meantime, hoping to wear down the vendor until they simply agree out of fatigue.
In these cases, the ultimate responsbility, unfortunately, reverts back to the assignee. You frankly can't allow people to get you to do things without creating the environment for a strong commitment. You need to probe and negotiate: "Which of us do you want to take this on, boss?" "I just got your note and I'm afraid I can't meet your desired date. Can we discuss and come up with an alternative?" "Help me understand why you want it done this particular way." etc. And then work to shape the request into a proper commitment that you can perform.

The environment that W. L. Gore Industries created (profiled in the new Gary Hamel book), is ideal for commitments. Any staffer asked to do something can accept or refuse the commitment. Once accepted, the commitment is expected to be completed. And a rigorous 360° review process incents people not to refuse every commitment (Bartleby the Scrivener wouldn't last long at Gore).

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