Have you ever promised to do something substantial for someone without first figuring out how you can possibly get it done? Most likely you have. People do this all the time. When we really care about something, even when it is daunting, we make bold and unmitigated commitments. You’ve probably seen organization leaders do this when getting the business is critical to remaining competitive or when there is an opportunity to exemplify the company values (e.g. Ikea did this around their sustainability value in 2014 when they pledged to produce as much renewable energy as they consumed by 2020). Promises are made before anyone has figured out the step by step of how the promise will be met.
Now the commitment needs to be transferred to the people who will make it happen — or not. This is where the notion of a “team promise” is crucial. If the department or team responsible for meeting the commitment interprets it as an assignment competing with many others, instead of holding it as their promise, then the commitment is already in great danger of not being fulfilled. Poor execution has already begun.
The most common reason that a promise by a leader gets interpreted as just more work on the plate is because the people being given the responsibility are never explicitly asked if they can take on and own the promise. In other words, leaders don’t always follow up their promises by making effective requests. Effective means that you get a clear and trustworthy commitment back from the team. Making requests can be scarier than giving responsibility, because there is always the possibility that the requestee will say “No”. “No” by the way, is one possible clear and valid response. Typically, it is followed by an explanation. When someone says “no” they are being honest and rather than give a false “yes”, they are speaking their truth.
But there is a danger much more common and much more harmful than having your request declined. And that is assuming that because you’ve handed off the responsibility, you can count on the promise to be managed and met. When you do not make effective requests, you are colluding with others to operate in the gray area of “Sure, we are working on it, we’re doing the best we can”. This is the soul sucking space of shallow and false commitments.
Organizational leaders will continue to make promises that, at the time, they don’t know how they will be fulfilled (e.g., that is how we got a man to the moon). However, their job does not end with handing off that promise to a team. The leaders must make effective requests, which include:
- Why this promise is important (to the organization, to customers, to society, etc.)
- Any specific known conditions of satisfaction (and how we’ll determine if the promise was fully met)
- When it needs to be completed or by when can you get this done
- And, what help do you need from me?
Once a leader makes an effective request, they must get a valid response. Valid responses include: “yes, we will do this”, “no we can’t do this and here’s why”, a negotiation (e.g., “to do it by that date we may need to negotiate X feature”) or “we need to do further analysis and we’ll get back to you by this date”. This is the first and necessary step to ensuring that you have a “team promise”.