Execution is about Promises

I was working recently with a leadership team in a tech company that is the dominant player in its market and is facing some major challenges in 2024. The team recognizes it needs to really up its game—particularly its execution.

I told the team that execution is all about promises. Personal promises with clear outcomes made by one human being to another. Job descriptions and roles matter, of course, but these don’t assure performance or generate trust. Only people do that.

At first, this team—like many others—was a bit skeptical. But once we began digging into their actual execution issues, the leaders recognized the power of this approach and soon began looking at all the various promises they were making to each other and their teams were making to them.

Recognizing the promised-based nature of execution reveals a whole new view of organizational performance and opens doors to dramatic improvement that often remains closed to more traditional perspectives.

There are several factors that make for good promises and strong execution, but one central factor is the voluntary nature of a promise. When a person willingly commits herself to a promise, the likelihood of fulfilling it goes way up—especially when she encounters bumps on the road. On the other hand, when promises are assumed, and a person feels little or no personal commitment to them, those same bumps can quickly become roadblocks.

Good promises can’t be assigned because true commitment can’t be assigned—it has to come from inside, with clear recognition of the risks involved.

To make a promise is to assume risk. Risk like the possibility of failure—of things happening that are out of our control, which make the promise unfulfillable, and which may put our reputation on the line. Or the risk of lost opportunities because whenever we commit ourselves to one thing, we must say No to other things.

Keeping this in mind when we’re asking others to make promises to us, or when we’re making promises to them, allows us to enter in promises with our eyes wide open and with greater personal choice. Knowing the risks involved in committing ourselves makes the promise all the more real and important to us. And this gives us more energy and drive to make good on the promise.

As for the leadership team I mentioned—they’re now introducing this promise-based approach to execution to everyone in their organization. They’re all learning to be more focused about what they’re promising to one another, to more clearly negotiate the terms of their promises so expectations are aligned, and they’re having direct and collaborative conversations when their promises do hit those inevitable speed bumps. As trust and accountability are going up, rote compliance and frustration on the team are going down.

That’s the power of promises, well-made and well-managed. It’s the best way I know of to rapidly transform a team’s performance.

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