Promise-Based Management

Last Updated Nov 7, 2007 3:31 PM EST

The Idea in Brief

In many companies, critical strategic initiatives
keep stalling. Important work sits undone. And emerging
opportunities fall by the wayside.

Why such difficulty translating strategy into
action? In this world of far-flung suppliers, external
partners, and colleagues, companies can no longer rely
on their internal organizational structures and
processes to push strategic work forward. What
really drives successful execution?
Promises: employees' personal pledges
to satisfy concerns of stakeholders within and outside
an organization. And when strategy implementation
falters, poorly crafted promises are usually the

How to combat execution problems? Manage promises
as carefully as you do other organizational resources,
suggest Sull and Spinosa. Well-made promises share
distinguishing characteristics. For example, they're
public and voluntary. All parties understand what needs
to be done and why. The "provider" of the promise
delivers as agreed. And the "customer" acknowledges

Craft promises carefully, and you enhance
coordination and cooperation among colleagues. Equally
valuable, your company builds the agility required to
seize new business opportunities.

The Idea in Practice

Sull and Spinosa offer these guidelines for
managing promises carefully:

Understand a Promise's Three Phases

To create and execute an effective promise, the
"provider" of the promise and its "customer" move
through three phases:

1. Meeting of minds. The customer requests
something from the provider. Both clarify how the
request will be fulfilled, why it's important to the
customer, when it will be fulfilled, and which resources
will be used. This phase ends when the provider makes a
promise the customer accepts.

2. Making it happen. The provider executes
on the promise, while he and the customer continue
interpreting and reinterpreting their agreement in light
of any reshuffled priorities or reallocated resources.
The provider renegotiates delivery terms if he realizes
he can't satisfy the promise. The customer initiates
renegotiations if his priorities or circumstances
change. This phase ends when the provider declares the
task complete and submits it to the customer for

3. Closing the loop. The customer publicly
declares that the provider has delivered the goods—or
failed to do so. Each offers the other feedback on how
to work together more effectively in the

Cultivate the Five Qualities of a Good

Well-made promises are:

Public. People strive to make good on
declarations they've pronounced publicly, because their
reputations and trustworthiness are on the line—and they
can't selectively "forget" what they committed to

Active. Promises languish when customers
hurl requests at providers who passively catch them,
throw them on the pile, and go back to work. Skilled
promise-crafters actively negotiate their
commitment—including unearthing conflicting assumptions
that could spawn misunderstandings.

Voluntary. People assume personal
responsibility when they make promises willingly, versus
under duress. Effective promise makers have freedom to
decline customers' requests or make counteroffers: "What
you're asking isn't possible, but this is what I
can do for you."

Explicit. Explicitness is crucial
especially when parties have different cultural
backgrounds or the promise involves an abstract
construct ("optimization," "innovation") subject to
multiple interpretations. To avoid misunderstandings,
the parties make requests clear from the start, provide
progress reports accurately reflecting the promise's
execution, and detail success (or failure) at the time
of delivery.

Mission-based. When customers explain to
providers why their request is important, providers keep
executing even when they encounter unforeseen
roadblocks. They also creatively address customers'
underlying concerns—rather than blindly fulfilling the
letter of the request.

Copyright 2007 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Further Reading


Managing by Commitments

Harvard Business Review

June 2003

by Donald Sull

The types of promises people make in an
organization must be adapted to the company's needs
at three different stages of maturity: 1) When your
company's young, make defining
. These public promises and
investments establish shared views about how you'll
compete, create norms about how to unite and inspire
employees, and obtain needed assets. 2) As your firm
matures, make reinforcing commitments.
These buttress your defining commitments—building
efficiency, sharpening focus, and attracting
employees and customers who fit the firm's identity.
3) When disruptive change strikes, make
transforming commitments. These
force your firm out of the status quo by enabling
leaders and employees to define a new strategic
direction and to reconfigure resources, processes,
and values to support that direction.

Informal Networks: The Company Behind the Chart

Harvard Business Review

July 1993

by David Krackhardt and Jeffrey R. Hanson

Many promises are made to individuals over
whom the promise provider has no formal authority.
Thus much of the work that gets done through
promises unfolds in large networks of informal
relationships that cross functions and divisions—not
formal reporting relationships depicted on an
organizational chart. To make effective promises,
you need to understand the three types of informal
networks that characterize your organization: 1) The
advice network influences whom
people are turning to most often to get work done.
2) The trust network determines who
tends to share delicate information. 3) The
communication network shows who
talks most frequently about work-related matters. By
diagramming these three networks, you can more
easily determine who should be your promise
"customers" and how to craft those