Category Archives: Commitment Based Management

The Four Steps of the Commitment Cycle

For commitments to be effective, they require an ongoing dialog between the customer/requester and the performer.  That dialog follows a closed-loop structure that proceeds through four distinct steps – Preparation, Negotiation, Execution, and Acknowledgement – in which each party has certain responsibilities.

1. Preparation

Requester:  Identifies the single best performer for the task and makes a specific request that includes the time, quality and cost, as well as the rationale for the request.

Performer:  Spends the time needed to fully understand the customer’s concerns.

2. Negotiation

Requester:  Makes sure the performer understands the request.  Negotiates and agrees to the conditions of satisfaction.  Understands and agrees to what the requester needs to do to enable the performer to accomplish the task.

Performer:  Makes sure they understand the request and realistically assesses their ability to execute.  The performer states what they need from the requester, anything, in order to accomplish the task.

Outcome:  The performer makes a promise which the requester accepts.  An explicit agreement is confirmed as to an outcome and due date.

3. Execution

Requester:  Monitors progress of work and delivers on any agreed actions to the performer.  If the requester becomes aware of a change in circumstances that relate to the agreed task, the requester promptly advises the performer and renegotiates a new agreement in good faith.

Performer:  Updates the requester regularly on progress.  If the performer perceives they may break the original agreement, they promptly notify the requester of  the change in circumstances and renegotiate a revised agreement in good faith. If needed, renegotiation occurs before the original due date has passed.

Outcome:  At the conclusion of this phase, the performer assesses that the task is complete and makes a delivery to the customer.

4. Acknowledgment

Requester:  Assesses the performer’s work against the terms  of the agreement and provides feedback and rewards (when appropriate).  Any lessons learned for improvement for the next project are articulated.

Performer:  Inquires about the customer’s satisfaction and solicits feedback.  Any lessons for improvement are incorporated for the next project.

Outcome:  The requester declares the work is satisfactory (or not).  Note: It is up to the requester to determine if the task is done, not the performer.  The loop is closed; the commitment cycle is complete.


The commitment cycle outlined above is straightforward, even obvious.  Unfortunately, however, it is rarely followed and commitments are weak or non-existent most of the time.  Requests are poorly articulated.  Clear agreements are replaced with statements from performers like “I’ll try my best” or “I’ll put a top priority on this”.  Sometimes tasks are just “assigned” without any commentary at all from the performer as to their ability to perform.  Often dialog breaks down during execution, especially when things go wrong.  Deadlines slip without acknowledgment and renegotiation.  Deliveries are “slid” in without announcement and acknowledgements are rare.  A lack of attention to the four stages of a commitment cycle results in enormous waste in an organization’s productivity.  Even more important, interpersonal relations are strained and trust declines.

Organizations that embrace the culture and practice of making effective commitments will save costs and outpace their rivals.  CommitKeeper is a software tool that guides users through the four stages of a commitment cycle and reinforces best practices.

Speaking And Acting With Intention

What does it mean to speak and act with intention?  Intention is defined as “a determination to act in a certain way.”  It’s assumed that we all generally speak and act with determination.  However, the sad truth is that real intention is often lacking in our everyday interactions.  Most people speak without intention; they simply say whatever comes to mind.

Our communication can be lazy, not mindful, vague, or loaded with generalizations.  Communication is sometimes inauthentic; meaning is deliberately shaded; not saying exactly what you mean.  Speaking with intention also involves a conscious attention to whether the receiver gets and fully understands the communication.  If the speaker is unaware or does not care what the receiver hears, there is a lack of intention.  Consider the business colleague who has gone to enormous pains to develop a plan that doesn’t excite him.  Even as he presents it, he is backing away from it.  He is doing what people do in organizations every day — saying one thing, meaning another.  The tragedy — and the waste — is not that his colleagues don’t realize it but rather that the presenter himself doesn’t realize it.  There is no real commitment behind his words.

When we act without intention requests are vague.  Delivery dates are assumed or proposed without confirmation.  Agreements are not explicitly obtained.  Due dates 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 is lacking, and there is little incentive for contributing any discretionary effort above and beyond.  People work on their favored assignments and leave other tasks to decay without any communication.  These behaviors inevitably lead to low trust and waste.

We have accepted this dysfunction for a long time.  It’s time to recreate our working relations around the foundational principle of speaking and acting with intention.  Speak with intention, and your actions take on new purpose.  Speak with power, and you act with power.

Acting with intention has observable hallmarks.  Requests are made to a specific performer with clear expectations stated as to level of effort and the desired due date.  These are “requests”, not assignments just doled out.  The performer responds explicitly with an agreement or a counter proposal.  A commitment is negotiated and forged between the two parties.  Clarity and transparency build trust between both parties.  The quality of the ensuing dialog between performer and requestor removes vague assumptions and instead forms clear and realistic agreements.  More specifically, committed action involves a certain grammar in a particular sequence.  Specific words used in conversation convey truth and create action.  These language rituals build trust between colleagues.

Our CommitKeeper software helps users become more mindful of the ways in which they are communicating, and  guides them in making and receiving commitments in the work situation in a more conscious way.  CommitKeeper helps users to speak and act with intention.



Leaders Manage the Team’s Conversations

Leadership is less about the qualities of the person at the top than we often think. Team leaders need not be heroic banner-carriers, nor clever manipulators, nor even creative visionaries.  To be effective, what leaders DO need to do is focus on the quality of the group’s conversations.

Dr. Fernando Flores has written: “Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual.  A team participates in a set of ongoing conversations among people who commit to share an explicitly declared mission and to coordinate actions to fulfill the mission.  The leader takes action to ensure that these conversations take place and that they are assessed by the team to be effective.  The leader is the person who is granted authority by the team to take care of these conversations in an ongoing manner.”

All initiatives result from a network of requester-to-performer conversations.  The quality of these conversations determines the success of the enterprise.  Leaders should pay close attention to who says what to whom.  What is the mood?  Which specific words are used?  What is the pattern of the dialog?

All collaboration begins in conversation, but results begin when one person makes a commitment.  People take action through language that follows a certain structure.  Collaborative action involves a certain pattern of responses.

Specific words, used consciously, articulate commitments, provoke true engagement, and invoke enhanced coordination.  Someone makes an assessment of the situation.  One person makes a specific request of someone else for a certain outcome.  A performer makes an agreement or promise to deliver on the request.  The requester acknowledges the delivery and expresses satisfaction.  Notice the different mood that is created between making a request and making an assignment.  Agreements are explicitly negotiated, and once made,  they have a much greater impact on personal behavior than directions or orders.

Words lead to behaviors.  Behaviors lead to practices. Improved practices lead to teams that excel.


As above so below

The adage is traditionally attributed to the Emerald Tablets of Hermes Trismegistus who is generally regarded as a Roman adaptation of the Egyptian god Thoth.  Hermes Trismegistus may be the earliest philosopher, but his teachings are considered universal maxims that are reflected in many subsequent philosophical and technical realms right down to the present.  Sir Isaac Newton is credited with a version saying “Tis true without lying, certain and most true.  That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below.”  Another reflection is from Confucius who claimed self-government mirrors the government of a state.

The basic meaning of “as above so below” is that by observing one relation you gain knowledge of the reflected whole.  The assumption is that everything at a macroscopic level is a mirror of the microscopic.

While it may seem to be a stretch to relate this quote  to organizational performance, I believe there is a point to be made here.

What is above is results: sales, profit, execution, growth.  So what is below? Below, at the lowest levels in an organizational context, is words. Specifically, conversations about what the organization is or should be doing and how individuals collaborate to get it done.

The quality of these elemental conversations effects the results. The performance effects the conversations.  As above, so below…end results depend on personal interactions.  Accordingly, improving the clarity and commitment bound up in individual conversations can improve top line results.

Self Management Rests On Making And Keeping Commitments

A new organization model called “self managing organizations” is gaining a following.  The idea is essentially that individuals organize themselves based on their own clear understanding of their personal role and commercial mission.  Each member of the organization is personally responsible for forging relationships, planning their own work, coordinating their actions with other members, acquiring requisite resources to accomplish their mission, and for taking corrective action with respect to other members when needed.  Relationships and organization structure arise spontaneously as each person seeks to contribute their value to the organization.  Decision-making is localized.  Individual responsibility is maximized.  This results in more self-directed work teams, employee empowerment, distributed decision making, “flattening” the organization, and elimination of bureaucratic red tape.

Formal, fixed hierarchy is non-existent.  There are no managers who doll out assignments with due dates and then hold people accountable for delivering.  Instead, each individual is accountable for coordinating around specific agreements they have made with each other.  The approach relies on developing sound practices for making and keeping commitments.  It is about the way in which people take action together by holding a shared commitment and facing changing realities.

The “conversation for action” principles originally developed by Drs. Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd back in the 1980’s still offer the most robust model for making and keeping commitments.

The smallest element of work is not a task, it’s a conversation about a task.  Someone (a requester) is asking someone else (a performer) to do something.  The conversation progresses through three stages – negotiation, delivery, and assessment.  In the first stage, the performer considers the request in light of their other commitments and priorities and makes a commitment for a delivery schedule they can make.  The requester and performer forge an explicit agreement.  Following negotiation, the conversation moves into a delivery or in-progress stage.  The two parties, along with any other followers to the task conversation, keep in touch about how the work is progressing, shifting priorties, and new issues that emerge along the way.  At any point, if the need arises, the performer may request to amend the agreement, and the two parties renegotiate a new delivery schedule.  Once the delivery is made, the conversation moves to the assessment stage in which the requester determines if the task is fully complete and offers thanks and/or feedback to the performer.

Note that this conversational model sounds obvious, but it is NOT how most of us actually operate.  It’s rare to find clear requests, definitive delivery commitments, and explicit delivery and feedback.

The “self management” model holds great promise.  But shifting to this model will require training around new conversational practices.  Software, like CommitKeeper, can help guide and embed the new practice.

Build Commitments, Not To Do Lists

We all have to-do lists, tasks that have been assigned to us.  The list is always longer than we have time to complete and the list keeps growing.  The tasks that get done, however, are the ones we commit to.   And the tasks we commit to usually begin in a very different way than someone adding a new task to our list.  Commitment requires a real agreement by  the performer to get it done on time.  How a team performs depends on how well team members create and keep their agreements.  So how do we distinguish between assignments and commitments?

The smallest element of work is not a task; it’s a conversation.  Commitments can be easily distinguished from assignments by looking at the quality of the conversation going on between the requester and the performer.

The flow of the commitment conversation starts with a request, then the two parties make an explicit two-way agreement, the performer delivers on the agreement, and the requester closes the loop by saying if they got what they expected.    Nothing hard to understand here, but this is NOT how most people actually work.  More often, one can observe sloppy requests and slippery deliveries.  Tasks are assigned with no explicit feedback and acceptance by the performer that they will get it done by a certain time, deliveries are slid in more or less as expected, and there is no acceptance by the requester expressing satisfaction or not.

If you’re interested in improving your team’s execution, and at the same time improving task ownership and accountability, start paying attention to the conversations between requesters and performers.

How We Speak At Work Matters

How work colleagues speak to each other, what words they use, what mood prevails, and the structure of the dialog have a lot to do with achieving reliable outcomes. Language trumps control.  HOW the communication is initiated and conducted is more important than WHAT is communicated.  How well people actually work together is all about the “soft stuff” – trust, engagement, motivation, commitment, etc.  Organization culture is made manifest in its language. The most powerful way to effect the culture of an organization is to change the quality of the dialog. An organization is a network of person-to-person work conversations during which information and energy is exchanged. Like cells in your body, the quality of these “work-atoms” determines the effectiveness of the whole. Attending to and influencing work conversations can help transform culture and improve collaboration.

Managers spend the largest portion of their time in conversation, and making those conversations effective is by no means simple.  Think of conversations as a sophisticated “technology” for getting things done, not just a trivial everyday act. The starting point is the recognition that conversation is not just about sharing information. A big part of conversation is about making commitments. You ask me to do something by some date. I reply that I will do it. That kind of promise is the key to coordination and getting things done.

An entirely new genre of software tools is now available that combines task with relationship management and helps users manage their work conversations.  Products like our CommitKeeper, act as an active facilitator to guide work colleagues through an effective conversation that focuses on results.  The software helps set the mood by leveling the playing field between the requester and the performer and then suggests the words and actions that help the user navigate a closed-loop delivery conversation.  Most importantly, the software guides the parties to create sincere commitments with specific due dates.  Commitments drive actions that lead to results.

Task “Done” – Says Who?

I mean who should be the one to say whether a task is really done or not?

Someone (I’ll call them the performer) is assigned a task with a due date.  When they’re done, they click the “Done” button and move on to the next task.  I have not found an exception to this practice in any project management software or social task management system.  The idea is simple, obvious even, but flawed.

Sure, if you have developed the task for yourself, then you will know with certainty when it’s “done”.  But if someone else has asked you to do something (I’ll call them the requester), shouldn’t they be the one to determine if it’s really done?

A better, more specific approach is this:  the performer sends a message to the requester asserting that they are done with the task.  The performer delivers what they think was asked of them.  Then the dialog shifts over to the requester who accepts the delivery and then determines if the task meets the requirements of their initial request. If so, the requester closes the task.  If not, the requester sends it back for adjustment or rework until they are satisfied.

It may seem picayune, but underlying the above approach is a more fundamental point. The smallest element of work is not a task; it’s a conversation about a task. Two people (requester and performer) forging an agreement to get something done together, making adjustments along the way, and finally closing the conversation with some acknowledgement. It’s far too simplistic to think an assignment gets made and then the performer says “done”.

CommitKeeper software manages and records this “conversation for action” between requesters and performers.



Our Work Behavior Patterns Are Flawed


We appear to be blind with regard to the effectiveness and implications of our current work behaviors.  We have accepted current behavior patterns as “normal” and expected.  This despite tons of documented evidence of the breakdowns, inefficiencies, and waste that is immediately evident to anyone who chooses to look.

One example: the act of “assigning” a task actually tends to preserve a one-up, one-down notion of the relationship between work mates. Do we really not see that this is nothing more than one of the flavors of a command and control mentality?  Simply identifying a task, putting a person’s name and due date beside it does not come close to really getting a commitment or any real certainty of the outcome.  The smallest element of work is not a task; it’s a conversation.  And only in an adult peer-to-peer conversation can commitments be negotiated and agreed to.  Agreements reflect authentic accountability; assignments do not.


Go Slow To Go Fast

One of our management consultant partners has a fundamental principle that he attempts to instill in working teams struggling with coordination and execution challenges. Go slow to go fast. It’s an old idea even credited to Roman Emperor Augustus who is said to have used the motto “Festina lente”, meaning make haste slowly.

It’s an engaging phrase that has now become commonplace, but what does it really mean in practice. Turns out the phrase can be interpreted in many ways. In our context, it has to do with the very inception of any strategic initiative or task. More specifically, the two key ideas are: (1) have the key parties involved really been clear with each other about what is the desired outcome, and (2) have they made a clear agreement regarding its execution.

This sounds simple enough, but there is plenty of evidence that this is not how we commonly work together. Very often the manager/requester provides a relatively brief description of what she hopes the performer will achieve, and the performer immediately jumps into execution without full clarity and without making a real commitment to a specific outcome by a certain date. The result is often sloppy requests and slippery deliveries.

Going slow at the start has several important implications. First, the requester is obliged to spend a little extra time describing their expectations. Second, the performer is obliged to seek and negotiate clarity about what will be done by when. And third, the two parties make an agreement. An “agreement” is much different than the more common “assignment” of a task. An agreement reflects a higher level of commitment by both parties. By taking the time to formulate a more complete request, the requester is demonstrating their commitment to help the performer succeed. You might even say that the requester becomes more accountable for the outcome than the performer. The performer, on the other hand, demonstrates their commitment by making a specific promise to deliver the result by the agreed date. Notably, this practice is very different than the performer “doing their best”. It goes without saying that the performer will always “do their best” to get it done, but a commitment requires the performer to pause, reflect seriously on their current workload, and then negotiate a specific delivery date they can meet.

CommitKeeper is a software tool that helps our management consultant partner take this idea into the team’s everyday practice. Requesters make “requests”, performers negotiate scope and delivery dates. Crafting an agreement takes longer than making “drive-by” work assignments, but the probability of achieving the desired result the first time is far greater if commitments are clarified up front.