I’m going to separate the idea of how commitment sounds from how commitment feels. Commitment sounds like someone stating a fact about them doing a specific thing, by a specific time or date. In this blog, we Define Commitment with examples. Here is the key sentence.
I will [perform a certain action] by [a certain date].
The two basic building blocks of a sentence that has a commitment are:
You will do something (not might, should, want, or any other inconclusive words). The word will is stating a fact.
An expected end time or date. Without this part, the commitment is fully open to interpretation and is virtually meaningless. It has a big loophole: “I didn’t say I’d do it this week, did I?”
Here are some examples of the previous sentences stated as commitments:
“I will finish this by the end of this week.”
“I will send out a meeting invitation today.”
“I will fix these five bugs by the end of the week.”
“I will take care of that by Tuesday.”
“I will lose 1 kilo by the end of this month.”
“I will do this today.”
“I’ll get that done by 18:00.”
These sentences give you no way out. They make you sign a verbal contract with the listener, a contract that you’ll feel at least mildly uncomfortable about breaking. This uncomfortable feeling about breaking this promise is the beginning of integrity, and it’s also a good way to surface hidden issues.
Measure by feeling
See how using this new language affects how people make promises. Does it take them longer to decide if they can do something? Do they think twice before saying they’ll do something? Do they dig deeper to understand what’s really required?
How often do you personally get it wrong? Do people correct your language when you get it wrong, or do you have to catch it yourself? You have to set a good example here.
The more people see you using this language, the more they will feel comfortable using it with each other. It will feel awkward at first. It should because, when you learn new things and get out of your own comfort zone, it feels uncomfortable. It means you’re learning something new.
Finishing the commitment conversation
When someone has made a commitment to you, and it’s not clear, it’s very useful to repeat what you think that person has committed to: “So, you can commit to working on this five hours, each day, for the next week?”
If the person says “yes,” say, “thank you,” and finish the current conversation. If the person corrects you, you’ve found out what they really committed or didn’t commit to doing.
Always finish up with a thank-you because, from my experience, people don’t know how to finish these conversations. A nice thank-you helps a lot to put a “dot” at the end of this conversation.
Can commitments drag on forever?
“My project manager will not like us not committing to solve the bug, and just work on it instead. She will think we are just buffering.”
That is one concern I have heard. But I have found that with some patience, it is easy to explain that some tasks cannot be proven to end by a specific time. Instead, you can “cap” the maximum time you can “burn” on a specific commitment, and then regroup, replan, and recommit based on what you found. True agility.
Look for commitment language
One common gotcha that team leaders often make about commitment language is that they ask people to commit to a specific time of when something will take place. It’s much better, safer, and more reassuring to ask people for the end time of when something will be done by, instead of an exact time.
Here’s the bad version:
“I will do this at 14:00 today.” Here’s a better version:
“I will do this by the end of the day.”
“I will do this by 15:00 today.”
The difference is that you’re not breaking your commitment if you still do that something, but it’s earlier than when you promised. It also gives you some leeway as to when to accomplish the thing you promised.
Using isn’t always perfect, so when there are situations when stating a specific time makes more sense, just use specific time, but those should, in my experience, happen much less often. Your first instinct should be “can we use ‘by’ here? no? nevermind.”
Where to use this language
Use commitment language in daily stand-up meetings, in one-on-one meetings, and everywhere where promises are being made. I warn you that once you try this, you’ll start seeing just how much non-commitment exists around you, among everyone you know and love.
This new skill you now have, of having a better understanding of the conversational signs people might show when not wanting to commit to something, will bring you both pleasure and pain.
The pain will occur mostly when you need something from people and they use non-commitment phrasing, but you are not in a position to get them to change their language, and you need the most from them.
Take comfort that when those situations happen, you will have at least found out about a possible hidden landmine to achieve your goals much sooner than you normally would have. That gives you more options on what to do and where to save time, by not wasting it on non-commitment.
Now that your team knows commitment language, you can start challenging them to learn new skills and ask them to commit to trying out different feats under their control, thereby learning new skills.
How do you remove commitments?
You remove commitments by letting whoever needs to know, know. Your boss. Your stakeholders.
Everyone who should care. Here’s what you do:
You show them the list of current tasks in progress.
You explain to them that many of the current tasks could have been avoided if the team had had enough time to learn and become more professional (give some concrete examples).
You explain your outlook for the next few months, in terms of commitments.
You explain the gains from this move: reinventing the team like a professional team that makes fewer mistakes and learns from its mistakes.
Before you decide that this type of action isn’t for you, for so many reasons, here are some reasons why you should do it anyway.
To understand how commitment language works, we need to talk about personal integrity. When we talk about practicing personal integrity, we:
Say we’ll do it.
Mean what we say.
Do it (or we raise a red flag).
Creating a language of commitment is about getting people to actually say something and having them actually mean it. The first part is half-built into our conversations. We say we’ll do stuff all the time, but we only half-mean it or we are only half-sure we can accomplish it most of the time.
Creating a language of commitment is one of the first steps to having team members who keep their promises to each other.
Changing the way we speak to each other is important because the language we use every day leaves so many loopholes that help us feel like we said the right thing but still not feel like we’re totally committed to it.
What does non-commitment sound like?
Have you noticed how you promise things to others? Look for usage of words that leave room to not accomplish something:
“I hope to finish it this week.”
“Let’s set up a meeting.”
“I’ll fix these five bugs as soon as possible.”
“We should take care of that.”
“I need to lose weight.”
“I think I can do this today.”
“I’ll try to do that as soon as possible.”
This problem of hiding important information is very prevalent in our industry because we, the technical folk, like to believe in miracles. We also don’t like confrontation. Telling someone what they don’t want to hear is a form of confrontation.
Why do that if we can just go about our happy lives, and things will somehow just work themselves out even if we don’t finish what we promised? Heck, things are moving so quickly, it’s possible no one will even remember what we promised we’d do.
And so this culture of wishful speaking continues and grows. People learn from each other how to make half-promises instead of real commitments.