Organizational Self-Management Recipe: Hearty Commitment Gumbo

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Commitment keeping comprises a large portion of the gumbo of effective organizational self-management. In turn, that rich, tasty and satisfying gumbo of commitment is ultimately what holds an organization together in a virtuous cycle of networked collaboration.

Virtually every leader regards integrity as a crucial stakeholder and employee characteristic. What is the source of integrity and trust? Keeping commitments. Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People describes integrity as “making our actions conform to our words” (related to but distinct from honesty, which is about making our words conform to reality).

Integrity means making sure that one’s actions reflect what they have already communicated they will do for others. Reality matches words. People that keep commitments consistently brand themselves as reliable, and develop reputations as persons of integrity.

Keeping commitments creates real economic value and makes individuals and the enterprises within which they work within more valuable. The value of a commitment depends on the level of trust one has in the fulfillment of the commitment.

To put it in human terms, assume there are two otherwise identical production managers, each making $100,000 per year, but Manager A is 100% reliable in keeping commitments, and Manager B is only 80% reliable. Manager A insures that Sales always receives the agreed-upon product mix for customers. Manager B commits to supply Sales with the correct product, which would have made a $25,000 profit, but produces faulty product instead (on one of his unreliable days) which sells at a $35,000 loss. The enterprise would be completely justified adjusting salaries and paying Manager B less than 80% of Manager A’s salary at any salary level. That 20% unreliability has already cost the company significantly more than $20,000—in this example $60,000 for one missed commitment. Unreliability is profoundly costly. Reliability is extraordinarily valuable.

The cost of doing business with integrity-and-reliability-branded people is lower, and thus more ‘profitable’ to transact business with. The more profitable it is to do business with someone, the more people want to work with them, and the more opportunities they have. That’s how value increases, both commercially and personally. It’s also how individuals and companies grow.

Commitment making and commitment keeping are critical self-management skills. There is actual history and research around the concept of commitment keeping. Commitments are affirmative speech acts. Commitments have structure. Commitments have a lifecycle. Commitments are one of the most misunderstood and dysfunctional concepts in the life of most organizations. A major problem in many (if not most) organizations is that people can be sloppy about the way they make and fulfill commitments, resulting in suboptimal levels of trust, excessive frustration and major disappointment. Trust flows from proven integrity, which flows from effective commitment keeping and communication.

Fernando Flores, the Chilean-born linguistics and computer researcher is regarded as the godfather of commitment keeping. His research and experience taught him that commitments are speech acts that consist of making someone an offer, which they are free to accept or decline. If they accept, one will make a commitment to fulfill a promise. Flores codifies these speech acts into sequential elements that comprise the structure of commitment conversations to build trust, integrity and ultimately performance.

Flores has variously referred to his theories as “commitment-based management,” “conversations for action,” or “ontological design”; combining philosophy, neuroscience, and linguistics.

Fernando Flores was the youngest finance minister in the history of Chile at the age of 27 in 1970, when a bloody coup resulted in the death of President Allende and Flores being sent to jail for three years while his wife and five children learned to live without him. Having not much else to do in jail, he read prodigiously, studying computer science, language and economics.

Prompted by Amnesty International, the Chilean government eventually released him from jail. Reunited with his family in Northern California, he obtained a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and coauthored (with Terry Winograd) the influential book Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design.

Flores huge insight: that the bulk of human communication consists not of information transfer but of prompts for action—the very essence of organizational life. If we’re going to be effective self-managers in organizations, getting these “prompts for action” right is supremely important. The implication is that by educating colleagues to use precise language that drives clarity, organizations can minimize the mistrust and frustration of unclear commitments and achieve superior outcomes for all stakeholders.

In 2009, Flores mused to Lawrence M. Fisher in Strategy + Business: “How do you educate people for the future world, in which an important part of activity is going to be networks? In my opinion, we human beings are not prepared at all for the explosion of new practices the Internet will produce. Education is going to be in networks and it will not be about knowledge. It will be about being successful in relationships, about how to make offers, how to build trust, how to cultivate prudence and emotional resilience.”

It’s difficult to argue with his premise.

Hearty Commitment Gumbo

(Making, Keeping and Tracking Closed-Loop Commitments)

1. As a Commitment Initiator, start with a clear one-to-one request to an intended Commitment Performer. Starting with a request is a given in an environment where command authority (the authority to direct the activities of others) doesn’t exist. In other words, frame a clear request for performance.

2. The clarity of the request depends on the level of specificity of the request. If spices of who, what, why, when, where and how are important to the commitment, the Initiator should stir those spices into the request and check make sure the Performer is clear about the ingredients.

3. Let the request simmer. Take as much time as necessary for the intended Performer to understand the specifics of the request and seek any further clarifying information about it.

4. The intended Commitment Performer, once he or she fully understands the request, may negotiate performance details. Perhaps there is a preferred deadline, resource or method that can be negotiated with the Initiator. Both parties have an obligation to negotiate the parameters of the request in forming the commitment.

5. The intended Commitment Performer has a range of options in responding to the request: 1) Accept and Commit, 2) Negotiate and Commit to a Modified Request, 3) Decline, 4) Negotiate and Decline. If the Performer decides to commit, he or she Declares an intent to perform to the Initiator.

6. The Performer then performs the commitment according to his or her understanding.

7. If circumstances arise that cause the Performer to become unsure of his or her ability to perform the commitment, then the Performer has an obligation to inform the Initiator and renegotiate the commitment.

8. Once the Performer completes the commitment according to their understanding of it, he or she declares to the Initiator that the commitment has been performed.

9. Upon receiving the declaration of performance, the Initiator reviews the performance and determines whether or not the commitment has been fulfilled. If fulfilled, the Initiator declares the commitment complete and the commitment is Closed. If the commitment is not fulfilled, the Initiator and Performer negotiate the terms of fulfillment and re-enter the commitment cycle from the beginning.

10. If the cooks follow the recipe carefully, commitments will be fully cooked, tasty and satisfying.

Recipe inspired by Facilitator, Coach and Teal Catalyst Susan Basterfield of Enspiral.