We live in a culture that evaluates actions in concrete terms. We routinely manage activities, tasks, and the stuff you can see that gets produced. That way of thinking is so embedded in our thinking that we are blind to the bigger picture of what is missing. 

Theodore Levitt said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”  By the same token, we don’t want actions either.  What we want is what the activities take care of.  We want the promise that taking those actions delivers upon something that we care about.

We need to realize that every professional action is intended to satisfy someone.  We call that person a customer, regardless of their role inside or outside of the organization.  A promise is an assurance to the customer that they will be satisfied.

Customers want a trustworthy promise and a satisfying outcome, not just hard work, good intentions, or excuses. 

Successful leaders are customers for promises.  They listen for commitment to results, more than action plans.  They know that being satisfied is a direct result of their conversations with other people, and they coordinate to ensure that the promises are trustworthy.

As a culture, by focusing on action rather than promises, we don’t manage promises well.  That leads to not managing outcomes well, which fails to produce customer satisfaction.  We work hard, and when the customer is not satisfied, they are left with frustration, blame, and excuses instead of the satisfaction that goes with a promise fulfilled.

Example: Remodeling a Kitchen

Friends of mine recently had their kitchen remodeled. The contractor made a “promise,” saying the work would be done by December 15th (eyes roll). Here we are in mid-March, and it’s still not done.

Ever work on a project like that?

It’s easy to blame the contractor, but the missing piece was a Trustworthy promise.  The eventual result, even if the work is beautiful, is likely to include some dissatisfaction.


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Keys for Managing Promises

  1. Get the outcome crystal clear.
    What does it look like when it’s done? By when?  To what standards?  By whose measure?
  2. Who is the customer?
    Who is it that we are going to satisfy – or not?  Are we listening to them?  What are the results they want, rather than the actions we’re taking to get there?
  3. Are the agreements trustworthy?
    Do you believe the promises that are made?  It’s not about what is said.  It’s about the quality of conversations and the shared understanding that is produced.  It’s the customer’s job to assess the quality of the promise and manage toward satisfaction.
  4. Anticipate breakdowns.
    Leaders anticipate breakdowns and have a protocol for when there are problems.  When something changes that affect the eventual outcome, such as the date, cost, quality, etc., they look for ways to have an honest conversation about restoring (or renegotiating) the promise.
  5. Recognize when and how to get help.
    Where’s the help when it’s needed? Is it dangerous to get help in your organization? How do we make it a respected move to ask for help?


The Leader’s Role


Since leaders make promises on behalf of a team, a trustworthy promise requires everyone to sign up for and own the promise. That means we have a plan built upon the promises of the team members that we can trust. Only then are we set up to manage promises, outcomes, and our customer’s satisfaction. These promises allow the team to navigate through the inevitable breakdowns with honesty and support for each other.


We have often found that all of these key points are missing in teams and organizations managed by tasks and activities rather than promises. What constitutes teamwork and a team’s success are conversations to make shared promises and manage them together.


If you are ready for your professional impact as a leader, manager, professional, or coach in organizations to surpass previous results, we invite you to a conversation with our Director of Client Relations, Chris Beauchamp.



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