Category Archives: Organization Development

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.


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.

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.

Performance Management Tools: We Need Something Different, Not Just Faster

Thirty years ago, a performance management system included written and oral feedback between a manager and each of his or her direct reports.  Sometimes HR had to hound managers to complete those performance reviews, but employees could count on a meeting with their managers to discuss strengths and weaknesses, achievements against goals, and developmental targets for the next year.

The performance review was seen as a way to either justify a salary increase or, in cases where there were problems, to begin a documentation trail to move an employee out of the company without legal ramifications. Managers understood this annual process was “necessary,” but few managers, and not even the HR folks, believed that the annual performance review led to improved employee or departmental performance.

The basic process has evolved little, with the exception of two changes: (1) There is a somewhat greater emphasis on setting goals, and (2) we have new tools for constructing review documents. Technology advances have been directed primarily at speeding up the process, not improving it.

Performance review writing circa 1984 involved a manager composing a one- or two-page personal appraisal report using a word processor (the newer programs at the time had spell checking). Today managers can “write” the review with a few clicks of a mouse. They use performance management software to select the characteristics (e.g., “exhibits teamwork”) from a predefined list (sometimes called “coaching tips”) to indicate how strongly or weakly worded they want to make the point. A few clicks and voilà, a politically correct, legally correct, and spell-checked paragraph has been “written.” In less than 10 minutes the reviewing manager has created the (too often dreaded) annual review document for that employee.

I recently viewed an industry-leading performance management system. In touting the system’s sophistication the vendor boasted, “With the click of a button…the document can be automatically personalized….” Does anyone else see the oxymoron here–“automatically personalized”?

Disguised by enhanced electronic aids, the new written reviews amount to the same antiquated practice, only with new packaging. We have paved the cow path and upped the speed limit, but we have not improved the journey or the destination. The increased speed and automation of this approach actually serves to reduce the value of the employee performance review process in several ways:

(1)   Speeding up the writing process may reduce the effectiveness of the intended communication to the employee. The process of writing requires applying a thinking process. Managers who take the time to compose their own original paragraphs are likely to be more specific and grounded in their feedback than those who click on generalized “coaching tips.” Additionally, the act of writing indirectly helps managers to prepare their script for the meeting with the employees. [Note: Some performance management systems enable sending the document directly to the employee to obtain his or her electronic signature. This allows the manager to skip the one-to-one communication meeting altogether.]

(2)  Automating the document sets the wrong mood for a performance discussion with the employee. Clicking through canned responses to generate boilerplate text implicitly suggests that the review process is mechanistic, one-size-fits-all, and mostly trivial. The sooner the manager and employee get through this annual process the quicker they can get back to the “real work”–as if employee development were not part of a manager’s job.

(3)  The performance management system is often confused with a system designed to improve performance. To be sure, the one-to-one communications between manager and employee is a key lever for improving performance, but these conversations are too infrequent and poor quality to realize their potential for improving performance.

Periodic goal setting and review are important, but the real driver for improving performance is at the granular level of making and keeping weekly and monthly commitments around tasks. Every request made by a manager is an opportunity to forge an effective agreement for a specific and defined result. Each request begins a dialog that should have an explicit delivery and assessment at the end. The smallest element of work is a conversation not a task.  Each dialog is an opportunity to enhance performance and build trust.

As an alternative to performance management reviews once or twice a year, 4Spires offers tools with an all-the-time focus on performance improvement that facilitate a new approach to manager-employee communication. Managers and employees use CommitKeeper software to help boost the quality and frequency of their ongoing dialogue around project and task completion by elevating and illuminating one-to-one conversations between those requesting actions or services and those who carry out those requests.  The software combines task with relationship management.  Rather than facilitate the use of automated, canned responses, this next generation of performance improvement software can qualitatively change the performance management system in use over the last 30 years.

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.

Culture Is Revealed In Conversations, Some Tips For Improvement

This post first appeared in the Huffington Post Business section on 03/02/ 2015

When we think of work culture, what do we mean? Often what we mean is the mood of the place. And there are many moods we are all familiar with that range from excitement, enthusiasm, curiosity, openness, honesty, and partnership to competitive, argumentative, overbearing, cynical, withdrawn, and punitive, to name a few. And how is the mood displayed? Through talking, i.e. how people speak with each other. The tone of voice, the specific words we use, the energy, and even the structure of the dialog are palpable manifestations of work culture. Respect and empowerment are expressed in conversations between work colleagues. Drop into any meeting, listen to how people speak with each other, and you will have an immediate sense of the culture of the organization. How work colleagues speak to each other, what words they use, what mood prevails, and the structure of the dialog have more to do with achieving reliable outcomes than all other factors.

How work colleagues speak with each other is not only evidence of the culture; changing the dialog may also be the biggest lever for changing the culture.

What people say and what they withhold matters.  Language trumps control. How the communication is initiated and conducted is often more important than what is communicated. 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.

What’s most interesting to me is that while our dialog is a reflection of all the soft stuff like trust, openness, honesty, engagement, motivation, transparency, confidence, and respect; dialog can also be viewed as a “technology” in the sense that it can be structured, measured, and guided through specific practices. One can readily observe and monitor what dialog is occurring and, in turn, what culture is being expressed and reinforced. Interventions to improve culture by changing the dialog can, therefore, be quite specific, not just platitudes like “we need more trust”.

Managers may spend 80% of their time in conversation, and making those conversations effective is by no means simple.  Rather than thinking of conversations as trivial everyday acts, conversations should be thought of as a sophisticated technology for getting things done. 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 control and coordination.

One specific intervention is to use language with more precision. One example would be introducing the distinction between an assertion and an assessment. An assertion is a statement of a fact or belief. An assessment is a personal judgment or opinion. An assessment can either be grounded (i.e., backed up with some evidence) or ungrounded (i.e., just a personal hunch). Another example is to notice that a request is very different from an assignment or a complaint and that an explicit promise from a performer to deliver something by a certain date actually changes the state of things. Making our utterances more precise is a great start to improving work relationships.

Another intervention involves paying attention to the structure of work conversations. Over the last 50 years social scientists and linguists have developed, for example, a precise model for a “conversation for action” that has four stages. In the first stage the team leader/manager/customer makes a request of a specific performer and the two parties begin the negotiation stage. Once they reach agreement, the conversation moves to the delivery stage. When the performer delivers they enter the acknowledgement/assessment stage where the requester declares whether they are satisfied and completes the conversation. Tracking conversations around this closed loop can be a big boost to better accountability and more on-time deliveries.

Promise Cycle

Language is both the expression of culture and the lever for changing culture. The “technology of conversations” is a new domain that HR practitioners should become involved with. Organization consultants bring special sensibilities and tools for exposing, exploring, and enhancing work conversations.


Behavior Change Is Hard, 6 Factors To Improve Your Odds

We all know that changing one’s behavior is so fraught with challenges that it rarely actually works.  We get set in our ways.  Even when there is good reason to change, mighty forces stand in the way.  And even when we do finally make a change, there remains a strong and long-lasting pull to revert back to the old “tried and true” ways.  The resistance to change is more than just personal preferences, it’s biological.  We are wired to preserve the status quo

Changing the behaviors of teams or organizations is many times harder!  Numbers of people need to be pulled, cajoled, or pushed against their natural tendencies.  Ask any OD or change management consultant, and they will tell more stories of failure than success.

To improve your odds of achieving organization change your change management program must have the following 6 components.  Your chances of success plummet if you miss even one.  Note that 3 generally require intervention, consulting, and/or training by an outside consultant who knows the territory and can guide the overall journey.  The other 3 relate to the supporting role of technology.  Consulting or new technology by itself will rarely succeed in the long run. The combination has real power.

  1.  A good enough reason to change. Some problem or opportunity must be so compelling as to merit even attempting the change process.  Don’t take this consideration lightly.  If the goal is only marginal improvement, then don’t bother.  The prize has to be really big, and it has to be understood by people on the team.  Virtually everyone needs to “buy-in” at some level.
  1.  A picture of the new behavior.  This involves two levels.  First, the group needs a shared vision of the new organization that has enough clarity to be enticing.  Second, individuals need to know what the new behavior looks like when we see it.  Stories from other companies can only be of limited help because every organization is different.  Descriptions of the new behavior(s) need to be specific.  General platitudes like “we need to build more trust and better accountability” won’t cut it.  People need detailed scripts.
  1.  Leadership.  Most often this is the team leader, boss, supervisor, CEO, etc.  The leader has to be gung-ho for the change.  But leadership must also come from team members.  In fact, having a couple of “early adopters” on the team who point the way for others can be the real key to success.
  1.  Practice. Software is the instantiation of the new “scripts”.  Even the words used in describing the change should be mirrored in the software interface.  The software guides, nay requires, following the new behavior.  The software forces users into a path toward the new.  Furthermore, new behaviors require repetition.  Software creates standard, repeating actions that reinforce and sustain the new practices.
  1.  A system of record to monitor progress. Monitoring change in progress cannot be accomplished based on mere impressions and personal opinions.  There must be some supporting evidence.  The new behavior(s) need to be codified.  Technology is the “neutral” eye-in-the-sky that records successful new behavior and answers questions like: Are we doing the new behavior or not?   Which individuals are doing them and which are not?  How often?  What are the results of the new behavior?  Do the new behaviors show promise? etc.
  1.  Metrics to show results.  Ultimately, we need to answer the question did the change make a difference?  Producing a definitive before and after analysis is often very difficult, but the software database can provide a host of both personal and organization-wide statistics from which real bottom-line benefits can be inferred.

Changing the behavior of a team is hard.  An honest assessment of these six factors can tell you whether it’s worth a try.  Combining management coaching/training with supporting technology can really improve the odds of succeeding.