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Scaling Human Systems: Making and keeping commitments

This is part 3 in a series on organizational design and growth.

What it means

Taking responsibility for action, and following through. Every time.

Why it’s important

Commitments are a cornerstone of collaborative teamwork. Knowing what to expect from others makes it possible to plan beyond your own work. If you aren’t sure whether a task will be completed, you carry that uncertainty as low-grade anxiety, which accumulates and creates cognitive load. You may even spend extra time checking back to make sure the need has been met.

Old status quo

Most work happens without an explicit commitment at all. Consistency is highly variable from one individual, team or circumstance to another. Tasks fall through the cracks, and we may not even realize it until much later.

New status quo

When something needs to get done, someone agrees to take responsibility for it. When this happens, everyone involved can trust that it will get done. When exceptions happen, we acknowledge them, and seek to understand what happened so that we can do better in the future.

Behaviors that help

  • Make commitments explicit: say “I will take care of that”, and record that commitment somewhere, preferably in a shared work space where everyone concerned can see it. For example, meetings should generally result in decisions and commitments to act. Write them down, and check back on the commitments at the next meeting to confirm that they’re done.

  • Hold yourself accountable: Follow through on your commitments visibly, e.g. reporting back the next time you see each other. If you’re unable to deliver for some reason, apologize and explain.

  • Hold others accountable: Expect these same behaviors from others.

  • Celebrate success: Thank others for following through on their commitments.

  • Learn from failure: When commitments are broken, it should be treated as an exception. Something went wrong, and we should work to prevent it in the future.

  • Balance your workload: Doing fewer things at a time will help you complete them much faster and more consistently. If you don’t have the bandwidth to take something on, say no. Make space for someone else to take it, or ask for help. If you are unsure about whether you can commit, you probably shouldn’t.

Obstacles that stand in our way

  • Fatigue: It’s hard to commit to something new if you already feel overwhelmed by the status quo.

    • Slack is an essential component of any change. If we’re 100% busy just keeping the lights on, we’re not getting better at what we do, and that road leads to mediocrity

  • Cynicism: If past commitments have been made but not kept, people can become cynical about setting goals and priorities.
    • This needs to change. Setting and achieving goals needs to be normal, respected and valued behavior in the company.
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities: This makes it hard to tell who should take responsibility for getting things done

Further reading


Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 27, 2013 at 18:12

5 Responses

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  1. […] Part 3: Making and keeping commitments […]

  2. I like your series on organizational design. What might contribute to organizational design and alignment is a distinction between purposive and purposeful activity. If people are allowed to behave in a purposeful way they are more likely to exhibit the behaviours that help. If they are engaged in purposive activities – ones in which an end has been ascribed by others then a different dynamic is created. It may be that as an organization grows so do purposive activities as the workload is specialized and divided into functional departments.


    June 29, 2013 at 08:21

  3. The link to the book “Slack” was helpful. This rings true. In organisations where one is continually over-committed there is no room to be reflect and use a spare hour or two to creatively solve problems that nomally don’t get the attention because of lack of time. To factor in slack time, there is the temptation to just add more working hours to the week, which in turn leads to burn-out. In some ways, being 100% fully loaded can really stife creative problem solving.

    Colin Ian King

    June 30, 2013 at 03:19

    • Hey, Colin! I’m glad you liked it. I’ve been recommending it non-stop since I read it a few years ago.

      Matt Zimmerman

      July 10, 2013 at 16:59

  4. […] are a kind of standing commitment we make to each other. They’re a way of dividing up work which is easy to understand and simple […]

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