Avoiding this mistake ensures that meetings aren’t a waste of time

May 21, 2013
May 21, 2013

This originally appeared on LinkedIn. You can follow Fred Kofman here 

Decisions are worthless… unless you turn them into commitments.

In a business conversation, your counterpart’s decision states his intention, but only a commitment holds him accountable. Although a commitment does not guarantee delivery, it’s far more reliable than a decision. More importantly, when managed properly, it allows you to handle breakdowns with effectiveness, trust and integrity.

Have you been in meetings where lots of decisions are made but nothing gets done and nobody is held accountable? Unless you finish the meeting with commitments about “who will do what by when,” you’ve just built 90% of a bridge.

Broken commitments damage tasks, relationships, and culture. They bring about inefficiencies, mistrust, and corruption. Coordination suffers, collaboration suffers, and cohesion suffers. You can avoid this suffering—if you finish every conversation with clear commitments.

Ask and You Shall Receive

Commitment conversations begin with a request: “Can you bring the financials to the meeting?” or “Please ship the order to my new address.” Things can go off track at this early point, especially if you ask without really asking.

I once coached a production manager who was put on a performance-improvement plan for failing to meet a crucial deadline. Weeks before the date, my client figured he had to add a shift to finish the job on time. He needed approval from his boss for the overtime, but he didn’t want to ask. He had heard the plant manager complain that corporate was breathing down his neck about costs.

He decided to use a soft approach. During a staff meeting he mentioned that his project could really use a second shift. The plant manager acknowledged it was a tough deadline; he said he would see what he could do. The production manager believed he had gotten the much-needed help. He waited for his boss to call him after the meeting to implement the second shift, but to no avail. Disappointed, he assumed that a delay was better than a cost overrun. He finished the job late. Imagine his outrage when he got chewed out!

Like many of us, the production manager tried to ask without asking. His indirect approach avoided a confrontation, but it also prevented a frank discussion of the tradeoff between additional labor costs and the delay. As I described in my previous posts on schizorganization and discussing the un-discussable, it is impossible to preserve sanity at work without open communication.

The typical way to avoid making a clear request is to make a muddled one. Do you recognize any of these examples?

  • It would be great if…
  • Someone should…
  • Do we all agree to…?
  • Can you try to…?
  • The boss wants…

To make a clear request you must utter it in the first person, using direct language and addressing it to a specific person. You must specify observable conditions of satisfaction, including time. It helps if you explain your purpose for asking, and, if and when you arrive at an oral contract, always ask the other sign it.

Although there are many ways to ask, the most effective ones follow a common pattern:

  1. In order to get A (a want or need),
  2. I ask that you deliver B by C.
  3. Can you commit to that?

It may sound odd to ask like this; you can adjust your language to suit your culture. For example, the production manager might have addressed the plant manager as follows: “I am running behind schedule. I don’t see how to catch up without some extra help. In order to finish the job I need some overtime. Can you authorize a second shift for the next three weeks?”

Time to Commit

A well-formed request demands a clear response. There are only three possible answers:

  1. Yes, I commit.
  2. No, I decline.
  3. I can’t commit yet because,
    a. I need clarification.
    b. I need to check; I promise to respond by X.
    c. I want to propose an alternative.
    d. I can make it only if I get Y by Z.

Anything else is a weasel promise. Here are some interesting ways by which people often say, “No, I don’t commit.”

  • Yes, I’ll try.
  • OK, let me see what I can do.
  • Seems doable.
  • Let me check into it.
  • Someone will take care of it.

When you declare, “I commit,” you assume the responsibility to honor your word unconditionally. You take on an obligation to deliver on your promise; or if you can’t, to do your best to take care of the requestor.

When you declare, “I decline,” you might still try to do what you were asked, but you don’t commit. You do not give the requestor the right to hold you accountable. It is much better to have a clear “no” than to get bogged down in a wishy-washy “I’ll do my best.”

There are many good reasons to decline. You may not have the resources; you may not have the skills; you may have a conflict with a previous commitment; you may anticipate problems; or you may just not want to do it.

When you are not ready to say “yes” or “no” right away, you may:

  • Ask for clarification if the request is unclear to you. For example, if I ask you to help me with a project, you might ask, “What kind of help do you need?” or, “When do you need my help?”
  • Promise to respond by a certain time if you need to check your resources, obtain commitments from others, or assess whether you can deliver to specifications. For example, if I ask you to prepare a report, you might answer, “Let me check if I have the information available. I’ll get back to you in an hour.”
  • Counteroffer with an alternative proposal to satisfy the need behind the request. For example, if I ask you to meet today, you might respond: “I am not available today. Could we meet tomorrow? Or if it’s urgent, we could speak by phone.”
  • Commit conditionally if your commitment depends on factors outside of your control. For example, if I ask you deliver a rush order, you can commit to do it only if I authorize overtime.

Clear commitments don’t mean that everything will work out. Life is unpredictable, so even the most impeccable commitments can break down.

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