Would you agree that it seems hard for people to keep their commitments?
(Based upon the fact that Alex Sheen’s “Because I Said I Would” is a worthy organization with a passionate message that truly resonates around the globe, I certainly hope you agree that this is a very real issue for us all.)
Why do you suppose that is the case?
Humans make commitments with good intent. We seem to have a hard time, though, grasping what it’s going to take to follow through on that commitment. Unexpected things happen. Conditions change. We discover things we didn’t consider. The list goes on.
And we all know this sort of stuff happens. So why do we make commitments?
To be nice, and to express good will. It’s nicer to say yes than it is to say no, and we generally do not aim to displease.
I’d like to ask you to explore something that many people probably haven’t: Think about how you feel at the rare times when you resolutely commit to not doing something. “I am not going to go skydiving on this trip.” “I am not going to go out drinking on Saturday nights anymore.”
Why do you suppose that it feels at least a little bit (if not a lot) good to make that sort of commitment?
As with so many things, it’s all about control.
When we make a commitment to not do something, we typically have taken complete control over the situation. Only we can change the outcome (by changing our mind). On the other hand, when we make a commitment to do something, other people start to have control, and that is when things get sticky. At a minimum, we become beholden to the others with whom we have made the commitment, and that can induce…anxiety.
I once consulted for a small company that had a President (Stuart) and an Engineer (Al) who weren’t getting along.
One morning, Stuart informed Al that he had a call at 2:30 PM with a client to review the financial results of the work the company had done, and Stuart needed Al to put numbers together for the call.
Mind you, Al was a little like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory: intellectually high-caliber, but socially awkward. Al could not contemplate doing anything without all things literally and logically discussed and considered.
Al: “That isn’t possible. I need at least two weeks to get those numbers together. I need more information.”
Stuart: “Well I know you can calculate the numbers well enough given the information that we have.”
Al: “I cannot be sure of that. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which are not yet in final form, import them into our systems, write code, test the code, validate the information, send to our QA team for verification….”
Stuart: “I think you have enough information to do what I need for this afternoon.”
Al: “I do not. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which are not yet in final form, import them into our systems, write code, test the code, validate the information, send to our QA team for verification….”
Stuart: “Al, please. You have enough to do what I am asking for. I don’t need this to be as perfect as you think. I need these numbers for this afternoon.”
Al: “I do not. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which…”
There were a few more back-and-forth motions like this; the very sort of thing the phrase ad nauseam was made for. At this point, I stepped in:
Me: “Al, what can you have by this afternoon?”
Al (pointing to Stuart): “Not that!”
Me: “Al, why don’t you put together whatever you can by 1:00 PM, and let’s all get together at that time to review it. OK?”
Stuart: “Sounds good to me.”
Al: “OK, but it’s not gonna be what he is asking for.”
Me: “Just try.”
A few hours went by. Lunchtime passed, and we got together at 1:00.
Al shared the numbers with us. He explained that he had to make a whole series of compromises, and began uttering a litany of disclaimers.
Stuart looked over the numbers. What do you think he said?
What do think Al said in return?
Al: “But that’s not really what you were asking for this morning. I cannot be sure those numbers are totally accurate…”
Many of you reading this blog might recognize this story as a powerful lesson in Agility. Indeed, I have shared this story countless times in teaching how Scrum or Agile practices look, even without formal methods. The lesson of Agility is to try to figure out something small enough to do to help us get better control over our ability to deliver. But this dialog is especially useful in illustrating how Agile approaches require commitment in order to be successful.
In doing this, I like to ask my audiences the following question, which I now ask you:
What two commitments were made the morning that Stuart and Al got into their argument?
Ponder that for a few days. I’ll reveal the answer in my next post.
🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx6_0Do0qGQ.