@johncutlefish's blog

I recently co-wrote the North Star Playbook. Please check it out.

Small Promises Regularly Kept

Published: December 16, 2019

small promises

I talk to many people about their jobs. There's a pattern I have noticed over the years.

Some companies seem to work things out. Other companies let chronic issues accumulate. Some companies limit the number of elephants in the room. Other companies have many elephants --many chronic issues -- lurking in many rooms.

The difference is most clear when you check in with someone after a year or so. In healthy companies, stuff gets fixed. "What happened to [the problem]?" I'll ask. "It took a bit, but we figured it out," they'll reply. The response is different in less healthy companies. "Oh that's still an issue. The re-org didn't fix it. I'm laying low for a bit."

The surprising thing for me is how steady progress on key issues can keep people motivated. You don't need fireworks or cure-alls to motivate people. And the opposite. How letting problems fester, and not keeping promises, undermines motivation.

Here is what happens in many companies:

  1. Run engagement survey
  2. Discuss results and patterns
  3. Make a vague commitment to address key problems
  4. No follow up. No visible action

To be fair, this also happens when individual teams do retrospectives. 1) Discussion. 2) "Yes we should fix that!" 3) No follow up. No visible action. At least on the team level these are often tangible, and immediately fixable problems. Yet they go unfixed. So this is by no means easy. If a team of five have trouble, how about a team of one-thousand?

Here's the problem. If leaders can't model that behavior, how can you expect the same from teams and individuals?

When I bring this up to company leaders, they describe being under an immense amount of pressure. This is true. They also describe having to hear people complain and point out problems all day, every day. Also true. That organizational problems are not easy to fix. True. That the org needs to focus. There are many higher priority problems. Yup. That they have a task-force working on [the problem] as we speak. The task-force will present their recommendations soon. OK! You get the idea...

No one likes being put on the spot.

None of these things are wrong. But at the heart of things you have a human worried about letting people down. They are afraid they can't deliver, cautious about commitments, and concerned about transparency. Given all this, it is very tempting to be opaque about continuous improvement. They aren't saying they are going to ignore problems. Rather, they prefer something less explicit.

So you have a very human problem. And an opportunity. People are generally forgiving if they observe steady progress, accountability, and transparency. You can achieve this by:

  1. Limiting change in progress. Focus!
  2. Explaining prioritization. Why this? Why now?
  3. Small promises regularly kept.
  4. Engaging the team in the experiment (e.g. "we expect to see X, let me know if it isn't working")
  5. Following up on outcomes and next steps.

This is scary. But it works. And it sends the right message to your company. Put yourself in the shoes of a team-member reflecting on the last year at your company. In the balance, what will they say? My guess is that small promises regularly kept will have a greater impact than a "big win" or bold claims.