Failure to execute is the key 21st century management problem. Current work-norms are dysfunctional. There is one profoundly simple thing we can change that will dramatically improve execution – we need to get better at making and keeping commitments. Simple, but radical practices are described. New supporting systems are coming.
The biggest problem today is not creating visions, nor developing plans. The real problem is a failure to execute. Balls get dropped, deadlines are missed, deliveries are half-done, priorities constantly change, projects overrun budgets, initiatives don’t get accomplished. And it’s easy to see why. We have an overload of messages and communication to wade through. Communication about execution is more and more conducted remotely, not face-to-face or even in real time. Coordination is more difficult as organizations become more and more matrixed, and as the need for collaboration increases, personal accountability becomes more diluted and unclear. Employee engagement is in decline. A return to 20th century command and control hierarchy will not work, as today’s workforce wants more influence over decisions that effect their day to day work, not less. The solution is to develop new processes that both improve execution and simultaneously create more commitment.
Managing by Commitments – A Brief History
Managing by commitments is not a new idea. Commitment Based Management was first introduced as an innovative management practice in the 1980’s with the work of Fernando Flores (UC Berkeley) and Terry Winograd (Stanford). They described a “conversation for action” where two parties make an explicit agreement to deliver a specific outcome by a certain date. The core idea was that the performer was required to negotiate a specific commitment, leading to more buy-in to meeting the commitment and therefore better results and a more collaborative environment. The process of a virtuous conversation between the requester and the performer was defined in three stages: negotiation, delivery, and assessment. Early implementations to enable this process were eventually perceived as too prescriptive and confining, but the core idea offered profound promise.
Twenty-five years later the need for coordination and collaboration has grown many-fold. Accountability is even more diffused. Communication overload has reached epidemic proportions with new and multiple channels operating at once, but the communication is unstructured and not presented in a useful context. Technology advancements enable better access and easier adoption. It’s time to reinvent and reinvigorate management by resurrecting the core principles and practices of Commitment Based Management, but with better implementations.
Commitments Drive Better Execution
There is one profoundly simple thing we can change that will dramatically improve execution – we need to get better at making and keeping commitments. It’s as simple as saying what you’re going to do and then doing what you said. Simple, but not easy.
Scrutiny reveals that our common work norms do not support this principle. In fact, many common work practices actually get in the way. People make vague requests. Actual performers are unspecified. Delivery dates are proposed without confirmation - if they are mentioned at all. Agreements to deliver, when they are obtained, shift and derail without clear dialog. Expressions of satisfaction with the delivery, or of dissatisfaction, are absent. Closure is rarely achieved.
Even worse than these mechanical flaws, we are all familiar with the attendant interpersonal breakdowns. Team members are silent about their cynicism toward a proposed request. Real engagement by employees is lacking, and there is little incentive for contributing any discretionary effort. People work on their favored assignments and leave other tasks to decay. Low trust that deliveries will be met on time forces a need for backup systems and frequent check-ups by “management”.
We all have accepted this dysfunction for a long time. Isn’t it time to disrupt the old system and try something new? Let’s get back to basics and recreate our working relations around the foundational principle of “say what you’re going to do, and do what you said”.
Negotiating a commitment, rather than being coerced or given an assignment has powerful implications. Accountability is increased since the performer has ownership over the commitment (because they had a real part in creating it). Clarity and transparency build trust between both parties. “Requestor” confidence is increased many fold. The quality of the ensuing dialog between performer and requestor removes vague assumptions and instead forms clear and realistic agreements. Our word creates a bond with the other person.
Five Disruptive Practices For Making and Keeping Commitments
Managing by commitments can be readily implemented with a small set of repeatable and observable behaviors. The behaviors are simple, but profound. They are as obvious as they are radical. The following 5 disruptive practices describe what such an approach would look like:
1. Make requests, not assignments. This practice is not limited to hierarchical roles; requests go down, up, and sideways within and outside organizations. Other roles include stakeholders and observers, but let’s be clear on who is being asked to deliver what to whom.
The requester formulates an explicit request (i.e. in the form of a question, not a statement). For example, “Bill, can you get the spec to me by August 1?”; not “Bill, I need the spec by August 1.” Bill responds by making sure he understands the specific details and expectations associated with the request. A clear request is composed with a specific due date.
2. Negotiate clear agreements. This is the part about “saying what you’re going to do.” For delivery dates that you cannot meet, make a counter-promise you can keep. The requester changes from a position of hope (i.e. “I assigned this task to Bill with an August 1 due date, and I’m hoping he will deliver.”), to a position of confidence (i.e. “Bill said an August 1 delivery was really a problem for him, but he committed to getting it to me by August 5”).
Decline the request if you know you will not or cannot deliver. Make no mistake, however, this is a radical notion. Allowing team members at any level to “decline” requests from upper management would be a very disruptive concept in most organizations today. And yet, where performers never have the ability to say NO, there is not the possibility of a committed YES. The practice of negotiating commitments is not one most workers are adept at or even comfortable with; some personal courage is called for. This practice puts the performer more on a peer-to-peer footing with the requester, but yields clear accountability.
3. Keep communication going during the delivery stage. Stuff happens along the way. Agreements are not guarantees that the delivery date will be met, but agreements must be honored in a manner that is far different than failing to deliver on an assignment dropped on your lap without dialog. Having made a promise to deliver, the performer is now obliged to alert their customer as soon as anything comes up that may interfere with meeting their agreement. An observable hallmark of this practice is early notice of potential problems with meeting a commitment.
4. Present the deliverable explicitly. The performer makes a clear statement saying “Here is what I said I would deliver” or “This is why I could not deliver”. This is the essence and evidence of accountability. In our current work norms, this step is frequently “fudged”. Deliveries that are nearly complete slide in more or less on the day they were hoped for. It is rare for a performer to make a clear statement that today I am delivering on the agreement we made.
5. When the requester, always acknowledge and assess the delivery. Honesty and truth demand an assessment as to whether the delivery met the original expectations. Answering the question - were you satisfied? – completes the cycle and assures closure. This underutilized practice is the minimum quid pro quo to the effort of the performer and serves to represent the customer’s accountability to honor the agreement. Moreover, these are the “golden moments” when feedback can enhance both future performance and trust. End-of-year performance reviews have lost much of their value, and this practice heightens the value of more continuous performance feedback.
New Systems Are Needed
Implementing management by commitments will rely heavily on a new generation of software systems. Acquiring and instantiating these new practices will require support and re-enforcement. New system implementations that take advantage of modern web, cloud, and mobile technologies will be needed. Software will help add structure to commitment conversations and then track agreements so they are more accountable, more observable, and more measurable. New systems to support these practices are coming, but leaders must embrace the concepts first.
Get Back to Basics
We’ve colluded to make task delivery conversations vague and impersonal. Just assigning priorities masks the more fundamental problems of imprecise requests and lack of clear agreements. Our common work practices are packed with inefficiencies that dilute personal accountability.
Make requests, negotiate commitments. We need to get back to basics by saying what you’ll do and doing what you say. We need to extract the core principles from earlier implementations and support a rebirth of managing by commitments with modern attitudes, technologies, and implementations.
-- Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd for reminding us of the power of language and for adding structure to our management conversations.
-- Vision Consulting (Billy Glennon, Gerald Adams, and Charles Spinosa) for introducing me to “the loop” and deepening my appreciation of its value.
-- Pablo Flores for being my first collaborator in considering how software could support the technology of conversations.
-- Bill Welty (CEO) and Richard Berger (VP Product) at Action Technologies for helping me understand software design.
-- Paul Foraker for helping me build a modern version of software for making and keeping commitments.
-- My wife, Elin, for supporting my vision that these ideas can really change the world.