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 / Autumn 2014 / Issue 76


Does Your Company Keep Its Promises?

Despite best intentions, many businesses struggle with “commitment drift.”

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. And they are making these promises in an era of transparency driven by social media—in which businesses that don’t keep their word have nowhere to hide.

It is troubling, then, that in practice many companies struggle to keep their commitments. Under the pressure of a quota, target, or deadline, 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 the trust of employees, customers, shareholders, and the public. This downward spiral of disengagement can lead to what researchers at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics call “institutional corruption,” wherein good people compromise in ways that divert an organization from its purpose.

I have spent 25 years working at large and small businesses in the throes of sweeping strategic initiatives, megamergers, turnarounds, and game-changing innovations, and I have spoken with hundreds of professionals about their motivations and values. For all the attributions of unbridled greed, I have  found that many businesspeople care about keeping their word, and will routinely make personal sacrifices to keep a promise to a colleague, an employee, their boss, a customer, or the community. But despite valuable insights from thought leaders such as Fernando Flores, Charles Spinosa, and Donald Sull, it is extremely challenging to ensure that individual commitment adds up to organizational promises kept. As Lynn Sharp Paine noted in Value Shift: Why Companies Must Merge Social and Financial Imperatives to Achieve Superior Performance (McGraw-Hill, 2003), most companies are simply not designed to remember commitments over time—let alone communicate them clearly, hand them off between departments, or adjust them effectively as priorities change. To avoid commitment drift and the chain reaction it can trigger, business leaders must sidestep some common pitfalls. The following seven strategies can help.

1. Make fewer, better commitments. “I want to buy more from you,” one customer explained to a sales rep, “but I don’t trust that you are advising me on the basis of what I really need.” The best commitments create value for others at minimal cost to you. But too often, professionals make expensive promises that miss the mark for stakeholders. For example, a sales rep may offer a discount in order to close a sale, when what the customer needs is an assurance that the rep is acting as a trusted advisor, such as “I’ll use benchmarks to ensure that I’m recommending the right products for your business.” Similarly, leaders often invest heavily in the launch of a change initiative, when what employees really want to know is whether the change will last over time. When you take the time to understand your stakeholders’ needs, you can target your commitments to the things that make a difference.

2. Track your key commitments. “There are commitments flying around everywhere,” said one senior director. “Is anyone keeping track?” The sheer volume of commitments leaders are asked to make can get them into trouble. Flatter organizations mean each manager has more points of contact, more requests to get involved, and more pressure to say yes. As a result, people make promises they cannot keep, and they are more likely to forget the promises they have made as new ones eclipse their time and attention. Tracking promises doesn’t have to be elaborate. You can start by making a list of the people you depend on, and the people who depend on you (your boss, your team, colleagues in other functions, and so on). Then, for each relationship, list your key ongoing commitments, for example: “I will provide my direct reports with the resources they need.” And, under those, your specific promises: “I will hire two new engineers by the end of September.” Software tools can help you review and update your list frequently.

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