HBR Shares How to Move Your Stalled Projects Forward

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Promise-Based Management

Promise-Based Management

Harvard Business Review has a great service where they send subscribers a free daily management tip excerpted from an HBR article. Earlier this week the following tip showed up. The Management Tip was adapted from the Harvard Business Review article “Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution,” by Donald N. Sull and Charles Spinosa, April 2007.

At even the best-run companies, critical initiatives lose momentum. Important work sits undone. Emerging opportunities get ignored. The culprits? Poorly crafted promises — those personal pledges employees make to satisfy concerns of stakeholders inside and outside your organization.

Teach employees to craft promises carefully, and work moves forward again. One
key to a well-crafted promise is explicitness — especially when employees and
stakeholders have different cultural backgrounds or a promise involves an
abstract construct (“optimization,” “innovation”) subject to multiple
interpretations. To avoid misunderstandings, have parties make requests clear
from the outset, provide accurate progress reports, and define success (or
failure) at the time of delivery.

What makes a promise explicit?

There are five elements and another five characteristics of reliable promises. I use the word “elements” to mean essential parts. There is not a promise when any one of those parts are missing. The elements are:

This is the person listening for the commitment. If the customer is not listening, then there can’t be a promise.
This is the person making the promise. It is usually made by speaking, although there can be tokens of promising. For instance, I could nod my head “yes” to mean, I will do that.”
Conditions of Satisfaction
Think of this as the what that is available when the promise is fulfilled. The conditions are usually described with nouns and adjectives. (Verbs and adverbs make promises ambiguous.) For instance, conditions of satisfaction are often named: “Big Mac” for two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. Did you find any verbs or adverbs?
Completion Time
This is a specific time by when the performer is saying the conditions of satisfaction will be available. The expression “due date” is a misleading way of expressing the promised completion time. Due dates are often established without regard to by when someone says something will be available.
Future Action
When we promise, there is always something in the future that must be done to manifest the conditions of satisfaction.

We make assessments about reliability. There are five generally accepted characteristics:

Competence to Perform
You have the skills and wherewithal to fulfill the promise or your have availability of both.
Estimate of Effort
You have thought through the concentrated effort to perform the actions to deliver the conditions of satisfaction.
Allocation of Capacity
You have assigned the time to perform the concentrated effort.
You are ready to do what it takes to fulfill the promise in spite of the fact that we can’t know what the future holds for you. That includes making good on the promise — cleaning up the mess — if you fail to deliver.
You are not having a private unspoken conversation contrary to the promise your are making.

I think Sull and Spinosa are on the money with their claims. They just stopped short of telling you what you should pay attention to in promising conversations. Use the 5 elements and 5 characteristics to start bringing reliability to your project situations.