Does Your Company Keep Its Promises?

Hello, friends. I wanted to share a quick update and a new article in strategy+business

As many of you know, for the past two years, I have been exploring the question: How does a business keep a promise?     As companies become more complex and change becomes more constant, it is all the more difficult to deliver on key promises to employees, customers, shareholders and the world. Not only do we need committed individuals and cultures of commitment; we also need clearer, stronger commitments and reliable ways to “connect the dots” between groups.

Thanks to a Fellowship with the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the generous sponsorship of a Fortune 500 company, I have been able to gather extensive data over two years on the day-to-day challenges of making strong commitments and keeping them.  We have developed and piloted several Commitment Tools, a survey and a scorecard. My research collaborators, Dr. Maryam Kouchaki and Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, and I are currently analyzing our data and plan to share our findings over the summer.

New article in strategy + business

Meanwhile, strategy+business has just published an article based on our preliminary findings: Does Your Company Keep Its Promises?  It outlines seven strategies to help leaders avoid the most common pitfalls we have observed thus far.  Here is a short summary:

Businesses today make a lot of promises. They promise high-quality products and experiences to customers, careers that offer opportunity and purpose to employees, ambitious strategies and programs that will accelerate innovation to investors, and ethical conduct and social and environmental responsibility to society at large.

It is troubling, then, that many companies struggle to keep their commitments. Under the pressure of a target, or amid the turmoil of constant change, many companies experience “commitment drift,” in which critical promises are forgotten or broken. Commitment drift is dangerous, because it leads people to neglect the investments needed to maintain key capabilities, sustain customer relationships, retain employees, execute strategies, and pursue innovations. It also introduces the risk of breakdowns in safety, privacy, and ethics, and erodes trust.

To avoid commitment drift and the chain reaction it can trigger, business leaders must sidestep some common pitfalls. The following seven strategies can help.

Make fewer, better commitments. Leaders sometimes make promises that do not really help and leave stakeholders uncertain on the issues that do. (ie, can I trust you?)

Track your key commitments. Leaders often do not really stop and think about what they are committing. Tracking helps you make promises you can keep and remember them over time.

Ask for commitment from others. Leaders often fail to articulate the commitments they are asking others to make, which slows down follow-through on company commitments.

Connect the dots between groups. Leaders tend to focus on what they own, yet the biggest barrier to keeping promises as a company is often the lack of coordination between groups.

Focus on processes, not heroics. Leaders wear out employees’ goodwill if they rely on heroic efforts rather than investing in processes that make it easy to deliver.

Know what commitments you are inheriting in a new role. Leaders start new roles focused on making their mark; yet, they can undermine trust if they don’t ask about prior commitments.

Continually check for contradictions. Contradictions create distrust. Yet a company can easily end up speaking out of both sides of its mouth if related departments don’t talk.

The article’s core message is that most leaders want to keep their commitments, but they need help a) finding the time to “stop and think” before they commit, b) sustaining attention over time, and c) “connecting the dots” with other groups, to ensure they deliver.

How to view the full article

To view the complete article please go to strategy + businessIf you have an opinion, I hope you will add a comment to the article.  (Please scroll down at the end of the article.)

In addition, the Safra Center has published a related blog post with more of an academic focus.

All the best,

Elizabeth Doty

This post is adapted with permission from an article published by Elizabeth Doty in strategy+business, entitled, Does Your Company Keep its Promises?