Have you ever wondered what happened to that high performing team that you had just a few months ago? Have you ever stopped to think about why it seems like the progress you were making at one time does not seem possible today? These insidious problems can sneak up on you before you know it.
The subtle erosion of the ability to make and meet commitments to one another in an organization is one of these problems. It starts out innocently enough. It's the occasional e-mail that elicits no response, or the important, but not urgent, project that never seems to get done.
Organizations as a network of commitments
Meeting commitments is at the heart of every organization. Failing to meet commitments can cause huge ripple effects that are felt throughout the organization, no matter what its size. Whether the organization is working on community service projects or whether it is a multibillion dollar organization, its basic structure is the same: Each member of the organization is responsible to every other member for something.
Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd, in their book "Understanding Computers and Cognition," wrote that organizations are fundamentally a network of commitments. The cleaning staff agrees to clean the offices. The payroll department agrees to pay staff as long as there is money to pay them. The accounting department agrees to submit invoices and receive payments. Manufacturing agrees to make products to be sold to customers so that they can be invoiced. The sales team agrees to sell the products that are being manufactured.
In this complex weave of mutual commitments, even the slightest breakdown in making, meeting, and renegotiating them can cause huge ripple effects that are felt throughout the organization, no matter what its size.
It's more difficult to see and address problems in implicit commitments, such as e-mail responsiveness. There is an implicit commitment that you will respond, when requested, to a colleague who sends you a message; however, what is the time frame for the response? The answer is that, without an explicit commitment—in other words, a statement of what the expectation is—there is no answer. That is what makes it difficult to see problems when implicit commitments are all that you have. There is no yardstick by which you can evaluate if commitments are being met.
It is for this reason that there are manufacturing and sales forecasts. Sales forecasts (commits to) the number of products they are going to sell. Manufacturing forecasts their ability to make products. These two commitments are lined up, adapted, and finally solidified into a business plan for the forecast period. This process is converting the implicit commitment to the explicit commitment.
Explicit commitments are the ones that have teeth. The explicit commitment includes a few factors.
- First, it must be specified who is making and who is receiving the commitment: "I will sell 500 widgets for the organization.
- Second, the quantity of the commitment must be defined: "I agree to sell 500 widgets.
- Third, the timeframe must be defined: "I will sell 500 widgets by the end of the first quarter.
- Finally, it may also include a provision for when and how the commitment can be renegotiated: "If I do not believe I will be able to sell the 500 widgets, I will discuss this with you by the end of the first month of the quarter.
Explicit commitments are necessary for an organization's most important functions; the sales function is generally one of these. There is, however, value in making more of the implicit commitments explicit. The process of converting implicit commitments into explicit commitments makes them more tangible and reduces potential misunderstandings.
Service level agreements are a good example of this conversion process. SLAs convert implicit commitments to explicit ones by providing the "who" (the team commits to the organization), the "what" (to provide service), and the "when" (within the agreed level).
With so many commitments occurring within an organization, it's impossible to ensure that every commitment is met every time. However, it's possible to create a culture of accountability and respect that mandates that commitments be honored. Honoring a commitment does not always mean meeting it. It does, however, mean that, if it cannot be met, it will be renegotiated in good faith with the people to whom it was made. It means that, when commitments are neither met nor renegotiated, you must remind the people making the commitments of the importance to the organization and to their peers of making and keeping commitments.
That being said, we are all human and we all forget. We all get overcommitted at times. We must balance the need to honor our word with the ability to accept our shortcomings.