Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

Understanding Commitments

04 Feb 2013

The concept of taking commitments seriously is a great way to accelerate the pace of business.  Planning and executing all aspects of our deliverables with detailed commitments focuses and reinforces our bias to action in decision making and achieves results.

At its heart, it is as simple as “Say what you’ll do, then do what you said you’ll do” – but there are a few rules we can add around this concept to make it much more usable in everyday situations.

Commitments are not meant to help us find a blame point – done right, they unite teams around common goals, and mutual support.

To help you to understand commitments at a deeper level, I’ve broken the concept up into five different elements, namely:

  1. Defining a commitment
  2. Your responsibilities if you request or accept a commitment
  3. Renegotiating a request
  4. Refusing a commitment
  5. Handling a broken commitment

1. Defining a commitment:

A commitment is not something to take lightly. It doesn’t map to “I’ll do my best”. It maps, rather, to “I will do this”. To ensure you can fulfill your commitment, though, there are some things to keep in mind.

  • Ensure the “Measures Of Success” are clear – Details, Date, & Quality
  • Details: Has the goal been clearly communicated to you?
    • Be explicit about what the deliverable is and how you will deliver on the commitment
    • Be explicit about the due date, down to the hour if necessary and appropriate (especially the difference between “end of day” and “end of normal work day”)
    • Work to avoid implicit commitments, make them explicitly specific and detailed instead
    • Date: Has a due date been set?
      • If the date was given:
        • Consider other commitments you have already made, and determine if you can meet the requested date and still meet the other commitments you have made
        • If you cannot meet both commitments, try to to re-negotiate the request being made of you
  • If a due date wasn’t specified, and you are receiving the request, suggest and commit to a date that you feel is reasonable for both parties
  • Quality:
    • Are you clear on the level of quality you need to deliver?
      • If data is being sought, is a WAG sufficient? Or auditable results? Or somewhere in between?
      • What is the presentation quality that is required? Bullet point notes, an Excel spreadsheet, Powerpoint slides, Powerpoint slides suitable for presenting to the Board of Directors?

2a. Your responsibilities if you request or accept a commitment:

  • Turn implied commitments into explicit ones (if no date is specified, set one; ask questions about the formatting of the output!)
  • Remember that a commitment cannot be forced, it has to be accepted.
  • An open discussion inclusive of non-work conflicts can / should be part of the negotiation process
    • However, to build a long-lasting relationship, neither work nor home can always “win”
    • Ensure both parties are aware of the impact of the request being accepted (“If I do <Item 2>  for you, I won’t be able to do <Item 1>  for <Person> as currently committed”).
    • Help keep awareness of a commitment alive (by asking / giving interim status reports, reminders, etc).
    • Completed requests deserve acknowledgement (“The report is available on the network, as requested”, or “Fred, thanks, I pulled down the report from the network. Thanks for making it happen!”)

2b. Your responsibilities if you accept a commitment

  • Do not accept a request until you have given it sufficient thought; consider all of your current commitments and discuss conflicting priorities with your manager as needed
  • If you cannot do that live, make a commitment about when you can accept or refuse the commitment; if possible, provide the reason why you need the time. (“I’ll get back to you before 5pm tomorrow as to whether or not we can meet your timelines; I don’t know the area, and I need to check with <Joe / Sue> to understand how it will impact other commitments we’ve already made”).

2c. If you request a commitment of someone else

  • Help other people help you! Put reminders and status checks in your own calendar to help make them successful (“Remind <Joe / Sue> that I need the reports in 2 days – ask them if they are still on track to deliver.”)
  • Provide details, date and quality requested

3. Renegotiating a request:

  • Reminder: It is far better for both parties to accept a re-negotiated request before it is past due than be surprised by a broken commitment
  • Renegotiation can happen at any time, usually as a result of new information becoming available (especially as a result of other requests coming in that were of a higher priority)
  • 4. Refusing to make a commitment:

    • Request for commitments can and should be refused, if they will not be able to be met!
    • The intent is that we do not let others down by setting expectations that will not be met
    • However, it is important to note that the right to not take a commitment is not a “Get out of Jail Free” card
      • it is a recognition that reality is a factor in some instances
      • If on the receiving end of a refused commitment, keep in mind that the person refusing the request is helping you by letting you know now that they can’t be successful; finding that out on the day the request was to be delivered is far worse! In specific situations, it is better to agree to disagree.

    5a. Your responsibilities if a commitment is broken – no matter your role!

    • Acknowledge the broken commitment as soon as you are aware
    • Negotiate a new commitment that accommodates “current reality”
    • Examine the situation to see what you could have done differently that would have helped to prevent the commitment from being broken
      • set a reminder for yourself / set a reminder for the other party
      • having been more aware of a changing situation

    5b. Your responsibilities if you break a commitment

    • Accept responsibility, and inform all those to whom the commitment was made; if possible, also inform others who may have dependencies on your commitment.
    • “Own” the broken commitment (do not try to justify it, or make excuses).

    5c. Your responsibilities if someone breaks a commitment to you

    • When acknowledging the broken commitment, stick to facts (what was promised by when);
    • Stick to statements that bring value to the acknowledgement process and will help leading to the renegotiation process. In those situations less said often means more focus on what matters.
    • Keeping the focus on achieving the vision, the renegotiation process coming next.
    • Avoid judgements of the other party’s ability or intent; judgements are seldom accurate, and usually more negative than reality.

    Closing Thoughts:

    The focus for the discussion above is around individual commitments – but the same concept applies for team-to-team commitments, and commitments from our department as a whole to the rest of the company!

    From time to time, your leaders at all levels will take commitments on behalf of the team, using the best information they can gather to make the decision to commit – then we may all be called upon to help meet those commitments, or suggest as early as possible that a renegotiation needs to occur.

    I believe commitments will help us balance “Bias to Action” with “Quality” (of decision), and help make it easier for us to deliver a World Class Customer Experience. Give it a try, and let me know what you think!


    The original basis for these thoughts was relayed to me at Corel by a group called “Legacy Transformational Consultants”, but discussed as “making requests” or “making promises” – but I have always felt the language they used stood in the way of adoption in general business situations.  However, credit goes to them or wherever they got their inspiration – I’ll take blame for anything that doesn’t work with this!

    A framework for code optimization decisions

    17 Jun 2011

    AMD Fusion Developer Summit  I was a keynote speaker at the AMD Fusion 11 Developer Summit yesterday, and AMD had this blog post timed to hit at the same time:

    A less-techy version was cross-posted on the Corel WordPress site, here:

    AMD will also be posting an archive version of the webcast of the keynote, and of the presentation itself. I’ll add links here once they becomes available. The AMD folks I worked with at the summit were all great people, and their support helped make it a very low-stress situation. What a difference working with great people can make. (Thanks, Trish!)

    Probably the most popular part of the presentation was a stop-motion animation created using PaintShop Pro with video effects added using Video Studio. Here are links to that video.

    Corel Stop Motion Video: Treasure Hunters: or

    If you are interested in doing your own stop-motion animation, there is an interview with the creator (John Huang) at or–WQ.

    The same capabilities can also produce some amazing results with time-lapse photography, there is some very impressive footage at or

    If you are willing to go a little lower definition, “The Rescue” ( won an award for stop motion video at “Bricks West”, a lego-based stop motion animation festival. That short was created years ago by a couple of Corel project leaders, Jason Allemann and Deane Van Luven. Some of their other shorts can be found at

    Finally, to keep the presentation on time I cut out a reference to a book that I wanted to recommend. “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox.

    This book really resonated with my own experiences regarding process optimization, and has helped make me far more lucid when trying to discuss optimization with others. It is written as a story (in the same style as “Fish!” or any of the Patrick Lencioni books)   so it is a very quick and easy read, despite its size looking a bit intimidating. Over the last 10 years I’ve bought, loaned out, and lost at least 5 copies of this book – but with no regrets.  I re-read it every couple of years, and now have my own “permanent” copy on my Kindle – but I’m pretty sure I’ll still end up buying the physical version again in the future just so that I can loan it out, again!

    If you read it, let me know your thoughts on it!

    A Framework for Generating Change

    26 Mar 2011

    As part of the process of raising the level of effectiveness of our Digital Media development team in Taiwan / China, I’ve enlisted the aid of the groups architect, a really good guy by the name of Winston Li.

    Winston & I had discussed a number of initiatives that I wanted to put in place, ranging from extra “build” targets to more formalized code reviews, and he went off to try to engage members of the various teams.

    Unfortunately, he ran into a few roadblocks, and (I believe) was feeling not great about his progress. I felt OK about his progress, though, because one of the by-products of his efforts was an inventory of how each team felt about each of the initiatives he was championing – a key step in generating change.

    I use two tools in combination when trying to generate change – one taught to me by a former WordPerfect enterprise sales guy (perhaps Georges Sabongui, but I can’t remember for sure), and one shown to me by a group called Legacy Transformational Consultants. (Please assume their version is better – I’ve no doubt forgotten or changed details over the years!).

    The sales technique had six steps:

    1. Use the “warmest” approach your can.
    2. Don’t assume you understand the situation. Ask open-ended questions to learn “reality”.
    3. Clearly enunciate the benefits of your “product”
    4. Solicit, and respond to objections
    5. Seek a commitment
    6. Hold people to their commitment WITHOUT creating guilt

    The other technique recognized that different techniques and language are necessary to influence people, depending upon how closely aligned their viewpoint is with the desired viewpoint.  In short, the techniques to convert someone from “committed” to “evangelist” are very different than those used to convert someone from “hostile” to merely being a “disbeliever”.

    I’ll provide more details on both techniques below, but Winston had in his work completed at least steps 1, 2, and 4, and provided a clear map of where each team stood on the scale of “Hostile” to “Evangelist” – and laid the cornerstone and foundation for the changes to come!

    Here’s the details of the two techniques, and how I use them in concert.

    Levels of agreement:

    The premise of this approach is that different states of agreement call for different actions and language

     The 7 states are

    • Hostile
    • Inclined Against
    • Apathetic
    • Mildly Interested
    • Engaged
    • Committed
    • Evangelist

    Hostile -> Inclined Against

    The behaviour you’ll see from hostile can range from totally ignoring you, to downright rude. The best way I’ve found of approaching someone that is hostile is to do so indirectly. Find some common ground to start the conversation (weather, sports, a current situation). It’s tough to maintain a fully hostile outlook with someone you’ve just agreed with. If possible, use an ally to break the ice (See “Use the warmest approach you can”, below).  The goal at this level is only to seek permission to discuss what you want to discuss.

    Inclined Against -> Apathetic

    This is the most typical starting point if you are resorting to use this framework as a tool. The goal at this level is to get the person to answer no to the question “Is there any harm in finding out more about what I’d like to discuss”.

    Apathetic -> Mildly Interested

    Categorize this as “setting the hook”.  Using what you know about the other person, try to find some advantage they will see from the outcome you are proposing – more free time, potential for future promotion, glory and admiration, dollars saved, or even just your gratitude! The goal here is to have the person STATE an active interest in hearing more about your proposal.

    Mildly Interested -> Engaged

    This is usually the “minimum target”, meaning that for many discussions, this level is sufficient.  The goal is to have the person go along with your proposal, whether it is following a new process, or signing a PO. I don’t think anything more needs to be said here, as every kid has usually mastered this transition by the time they have turned 10, as they learn to manipulate their parents!

    Engaged -> Committed

    This is the most useful transition that you can usually accomplish. People who are at the engaged level will follow through – but will feel free to re-visit their decision as soon as something changes in their environment (workload, budget, hunger level, other…).  However, if you can get someone to be truly committed to an outcome, they are much more likely to be able to withstand the normal day-to-day forces that sway people from an intended course of action.  The goal here is to get a verbal statement of commitment that recognizes some “bad consequence” that will occur if they sway from their commitment.

    Committed -> Evangelist          

    This is the most powerful level that can be reached, but is often overkill. Evangelists, however, are necessary if you are trying for wide-scale organizational change.  The goal at this level is to identify the people who a) you can convince to be evangelists, and b) will be powerful allies in achieving your goals.  Put another way, you can’t convert everyone to be an evangelist – so identify those you can convert, then chose the most influential of those you can convert. Although the  most influential people may be harder to convince to be an evangelist than the guy seeking a cause, the payoff in the long term is many times more effective from having identified someone that people respect, and WANT to follow.


    The six-step “sales” technique:

    1) Use the “warmest” approach your can
    The guidance here was don’t make your work any harder than you have to.  If you don’t already have a relationship with the person you’re trying to “sell”, see who you know in common that can act as a positive reference, or better yet, have that person do some of the “selling” for you.  If all else fails “Smile at them. It lets you know you’re their friend” (courtesy of SJ, in “The Blind Side”)

    NOTE: Don’t move beyond Step 1) until you have moved the person from “Hostile” to at least “Inclined Against”

    2) Don’t assume you understand the situation. Ask open-ended questions to learn “reality”.

    This has been invaluable advice, in all situations. As human beings, we have a very strong ability to map ourselves into other’s situations – and 99% of the time, we’re wrong!  Instead of assuming you understand another person’s motivations, ask them about it, using open ended questions. At least 9 times out of 10 you’ll find yourself using a different approach than if you had gone with gut feel as to where they stood on an issue. Note that the higher in the scale you are from “Hostile” to “Evangelist”, the greater your ability to ask questions about the situation. Keep questions to a minimum until people are at least “Mildly Interested”.

    3) Clearly enunciate the benefits of your “product”

    Use the information you gathered in step 2 to highlight the benefits of your product for the particular person and situation you’re dealing with.

    4) Solicit, and respond to objections

    Don’t preach and move on – check to see what the person thought of the idea or product you are evangelizing.  Most people will naturally nod as an expression of understanding, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they agree. It’s amazing how forthcoming people will be about not agreeing with you if you ask them – but would otherwise let you go about your day without mentioning the fact that they completely disagree with what you have told them!

    5) Seek a commitment

    It would be great if you got to full agreement in the first meeting every time, but life just isn’t like that.  Getting a commitment from someone gives you the leverage to approach the person again to revisit the discussion. If all else fails, at least ask for the ability to discuss the topic again, if anything changes. Better is to have them “Think about what we’ve discussed, so we can pick up where we left off after you’ve had time to absorb the information”.  Some people know innately the correct level of commitment to seek – but in my experience, most people can learn this skill over time.

    6) Hold people to their commitment WITHOUT creating guilt

    Use the commitment received in step 5) to discuss the subject again. If you only achieved the minimum commitment, this will mean waiting until some factor has changed – new budget year, a more relaxed schedule, a change in the economy – if you look creatively, you will find lots of “excuses” to revisit the commitment. However, at all costs, ensure you don’t make your partner in the conversation feel guilty about it if they haven’t followed through on their commitment. If you can, renew the commitment, even if at a lower “level” – but if you make the person feel guilty, it is much more likely that they will just avoid you, or the topic of discussion, in the future – and the game is over.

    While this is described as a six-step technique, it can actually be nearly infinite as you may repeat steps 4,5, and 6 multiple times to move people from “hostile” to , and for long “sales” cycles may need to drop down to level 2 again on occasion to update your view of reality.


    Other Notes:

    • On “Solicit and respond to objections” – In addition to the regular danger of mistaking nods for agreement, there are (at least) two groups that we need to ensure we have actually reached with our arguments. The first group is anyone who has taken “active listening” training. Most “people managers” will likely have had this training somewhere along the way. Here’s a link I found that discusses the technique ( The other group I have found are English-speaking Japanese people, who will say “Yes!” to indicate that they understood what was said.  (Without asking follow up question, a recent sales meeting in Japan would not have had the result I wanted – and I would never have known why!)
    • On “Seek a commitment” – its better to under-ask than over-ask. If you under-ask, you get another swing at the ball.  Over-asking can get the other person in a “no” frame of mind, and you may find yourself with no opening to revisit the conversation.
    • The scene from “The Blind Side” is at 1:08 in  the trailer, at

    When commitment isn’t enough…

    24 Feb 2011

    I just coached one of the managers under me through a situation where, despite the best of intentions, he & his team let another team down. There was a crisis going on, and the team neglected to let another team know an interim release of a product was delayed.

    Not a usual occurence for the team, but the net result was the same – an upset customer. The promise by the manager was to “try harder” – but it was clear the team was already trying hard. The approach I suggested for him was introduced to me a group called “Legacy Transformational Consulting” – I’m not sure where it originated.  Legacy called it “Structure for Fulfillment”, but I’ve always found it a struggle to introduce the concept using their terms. I find it easier to talk to others about it in terms of “Systemizing our Commitment”. When we are truly committed to doing something, but we are still failing at it, we need to create a system that help us to meet our commitments.

    Here’s a very simple example:  I need my phone for work every day. However, I used to find that every now and then, I’d end up leaving my phone at home. I’d feel bad (and somewhat stupid) on the days when I left my phone at home – until the day that I moved my phone charger from my home office to the font hallway – and I don’t  think I’ve forgotten the phone since I made that change. Low tech solution, but effective!

    The problem the manager I mentioned earlier faced was that the team was very good about remembering to notify other teams about changes to the schedule, but they would forget about doing so in times of crisis. Unfortunately, this is the worst time to do so – it usually ended up making us look twice as bad in front of our customers. 

    Here’s the list of suggestions I gave him – along with an invite to brainstorm with his team for other systems to support his commitments.

    • Low tech: Put up a whiteboard in a location near you / the team that can be used to track all the commitments to other teams. Make checking the board part of the daily routine.
    • Low tech: set up a buddy system so that two people are managing each task.
    • Keep the same sort of list, and make it a routine part of the team’s daily “sync up” meeting.
    • Keep the list in Sharepoint, and refer to it each day. Use a sharepoint task manager that marks overdue tasks in red.
    • Get an old PC, and put the display in a place near your team. Set it up so the list of deliverables refreshes automatically.
    • Ask the team to donate a dollar every time another team member catches them forgetting to update the list for more than 4 hours. At the end of the year (or quarter), donate the collected funds to a charity, or buy a treat for the team.
    • Make the “due date” for all tasks four hours earlier than they are actually due, so they become “critical” sooner

    I’m sure when the team brainstorms, they’ll find 14 other ways of supporting their commitments that are better than any of the ways I’ve suggested – but the key is to create a system that works for the situation, and doesn’t get dropped when we get busy, or sick, or have a team member leave.

    A couple of other thoughts:

    • If the commitment we are making is critical, as this one was, put in place not just a single system to help support us – put in several, parallel systems. Usually, with some creative thinking, you can find something that works without adding too much overhead.
    • Put in place a system that helps you to remember the technique.  For me, the biggest thing I do that helps me to use this technique is to tell others about it – and every now and then, I get a message saying “Hey, that really worked”.  It triggers me to go back and look at places where I’ve let people down, and put in place a system to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

    If this works for you, let me know – and help me meet my commitments!