|Commitment is a powerful tool. [Originally published at InformIT.]
We often hear and speak of commitment. It's a term many people use, but it's a word with several different meanings. When you're clear about which kind of commitment you're asking for or using, you can connect to emotions, you can look for win-win benefits, and you can create reliable promises that others can build on.
In this article, I'll look at several meanings of the word “commitment,” at different commitment relationships, and at ways people assess or create commitment. I'll start with these aspects of commitment: attitude, motivation, hustle, and promise.
Commitment as Attitude
Commitment can be an attitude: an emotional state of attachment that puts the committed thing above other things; this commitment brings a sense of dedication. If you're committed, you're not working as a mercenary, committed only to the paycheck and not the cause. When you're committed, you care.
The software team was measured on the success of the project, but the project managers were assessed on the quality of their reporting. For the project managers, it was OK if the ship sank, as long as the sinking was properly predicted and the ship's log was up to date when it went down. People talked about teams being dedicated and committed to results, but nobody worried about the commitment of the project managers (to process).
Attitude talks about the emotional aspect, and that's notoriously hard to assess. However, if people don't care, the project has no chance.
Commitment as Motivation
Why do you come to work? What keeps you going on your project? What's your real goal?
Everybody has a different combination of motivations. For example:
- Produce something someone values
- Build something beautiful
- Work with others we like
- Work in a process we like
- Look good to the boss
- Program in Java
- Build our resumes
As the last few items suggest, our motivation need not align with the best interests of the project or the company.
The team was based in two locations. One sub-team had developed a goal of eating at a different restaurant for lunch every day. They had spiraled out past 45 minutes each way. This was good for the sub-team's morale, but 2.5 hours or more lost out of the middle of the day was interfering with their productivity and their ability to work with the other sub-team.
Individual motivations may differ, but that's fine if they all point to the success of the project. If your motivation doesn't ultimately support the project's goals, you will weaken the project.
Motivation (especially shared motivation or mission) can serve to re-center you to True North, the direction your team is really trying to go.
Commitment as Hustle
What is the behavior of commitment? A sports coach may tell you that some teams have hustle—that extra bit of energy a team or individual puts in. A hustling team takes the extra couple of minutes to get things working and checked in before lunch. If something's due tomorrow, they'll try to get it done today just to be sure.
A team that's hustling may work overtime (a little, occasionally). Some managers treat overtime as the true sign of commitment. Bob Martin talks about a different sense of urgency: the 8-hour burn. This comes when you're working at such an intensity that there's no point in overtime; you're so “fried” you're likely to be more dangerous or useless than helpful.
It's easy to prefer the dramatic whether or not the drama is more effective.
On an early web project, the team had done much work to get ready, but had underestimated how hard the actual deployment would be. The team's manager later admitted that he loved the adrenaline rush of the two final all-nighters. He felt the team showed hustle, and he felt part of the team more than ever. (The team could have spent those hours over the previous months and skipped the drama, but perhaps the drama helped jell the team.)
Commitment as Promise
What is a promise? It's not a simple true-or-false proposition like “My car is yellow.” Is “I promise to give you a nickel” true or false? It depends on what I think, say, and do.
Speech act theory [Searle] [Winograd] is a linguistic tool that can help explain promises. The theory's key insight is that some statements create their own meaning: “I now pronounce you husband and wife” becomes true in the saying, if certain conditions are met.
What does it mean for a speaker to make a promise to a hearer? Here are some key conditions:
- Both the speaker and the hearer agree on what is being promised.
- Both sides believe the speaker has the time and resources to meet the agreement (even if not everything goes perfectly); neither is having private doubts.
- Should problems arise, the speaker will put the commitment above other things, working beyond what had been expected to what is now needed.
- If the speaker comes to believe the promise can't be kept, the speaker must notify the hearer as soon as possible, re-negotiate, and accept the consequences of failing to deliver.
A web of promise can form, helping a team work together. A series of kept promises builds trust [Solomon], and lets people worry less about whether others' jobs are being done.
Scrum has the notion of a Sprint Goal (though many teams don't use it). The team commits—promises—to meet the goal, rather than promising to complete a particular set of stories. This can open the door to creative solutions that meet the spirit of the sprint even if the exact plan isn't met. (Some teams frame the Sprint Goal as sets of stories: these are the things we promise to get done, these others are the ones we estimate will be done beyond that.)
If the Sprint Goal is in danger, Scrum defines Sprint Cancellation as a safety valve. It's ironic that Sprint Goals and Sprint Cancellation are often not used; the first is seen as too boring (“do the planned stories”) and the second as too dramatic (“launch a witch-hunt”).
Some teams make promises about what they'll deliver. Others make promises about their process (“A full day's work for a full day's pay” or “We'll use Scrum.”) Other teams make estimates, not promises.
Many teams have confusion about what they're doing; are they making an estimate (which can be wrong) or a promise (which needs a buffer)? Clarifying such ambiguities can go a long way to setting proper expectations.
Promises and Relationships
A plain promise is the simplest relationship: a speaker makes a promise. The structure is still simple even if the speaker and hearer participate in a web of promises, as long as there are no loops.
Mutual commitments create loops; most promises have a price. (“You give me $10 and I'll give you lunch.”) Mutual promises put leverage in the relationship. (“I'm not paying until you make me a proper sandwich.”) While explicit promises can be performed better or worse, there are sometimes tacit assumptions that cause problems if they're violated.
The Product Owner came in with a large body of work. The team said, “That's too much, but we can commit to this part (the most important third) in the time you're willing to allow.” The Product Owner agreed to that. The team hustled, and finished not only the promised part but about 50% more. They went in saying, “You're going to love this—we got lots more done than we thought we could.” The Product Owner said, “Yeah, that's great—but you only did half of what I wanted.”
The Product Owner had violated something the team tacitly expected—they not only wanted acknowledgment of the completed part, but “strokes” for the extra bit. They had exceeded their commitment, but were assessed against a promise that they had never made. (Do you think this team will hustle as much next time?)
Power relationships make promises even trickier. Managers are often in a position of both receiving and making promises to people: they receives promises in support of organizational goals, and make (often implicitly) promises about providing a supportive context. The supporting promises (or assumptions) may be things like, “I won't ask you to work excessive hours,” “I'll provide the tools you need,” “If things change radically, I'll take that into account.”
Finally, there's a surrounding promise from a manager that is also a threat: “If I'm not happy with you, I'll punish you or fire you.” The threat may be implicit or explicit; it's part of the structure of many employee relationships. When the threat is too close to the surface, the fear it creates can cause the very problems it's trying to prevent.
Signifiers and Manipulation
How do you know people are committed? You can't see attitudes or motivation; you can only see behavior. What signifiers do you look for? (I'm going to focus on a manager's point of view, as I've seen managers more explicitly concerned about commitment than team members, but anybody can have this concern.)
A manager sometimes tries to judge emotions by how people talk or their facial expressions. These are of course prone to being faked, “talking a good game.” That leads to a quest for observable behaviors. A manager may start looking for hustle.
Hustle can take the form of voluminous output, no coffee or web breaks, overtime, or constant typing. Any of these can be signs of intense working, but they can be faked as well. There certainly are groups whose hours are “just before the boss gets in till just after they leave, with the occasional midnight email.”
Explicit promises can help, but they're subject to manipulation as well. The implementer can provide something of low quality, either full of defects, or of poor design so it will be hard to extend. They can claim to have not understood what was wanted. (“We can do that, but you'll have to split the story this way and reschedule the rest.”)
Conversely, some managers feel that teams perform up to their capacity only when they're pressured: “What else can you fit in?” “That's not enough.” “Of course this story includes that; it was understood.” “Yes, that's what you promised, but I expect more from you.” In Peopleware, DeMarco and Lister warn, “People under time pressure don't work better, they just work faster. In order to work faster, they may have to sacrifice the quality of the product and their own job satisfaction.” Some teams can be pulled (inspired) by the right motivation, but can only be pushed (pressured) to compliance.
You can't see commitment. You can sometimes see behavior that suggests it, for example, promises kept. When there's a problem such as perceived low productivity, it's better to address that directly rather than assume that commitment is the issue.
Where does commitment come from? Sometimes the motivations line up: people have their individual motivations, but those are compatible with the overall goal, so they contribute to it.
Creating commitment is tricky—what are you trying to create? An emotional connection? High productivity? A culture of promises? Are you merely after the signifiers that make you feel better watching the team: a culture of appearances over actions, of busyness over productivity, of psychological pressure over trust?
The manager set up the planning meeting as a pep rally. He used sports analogies to describe the challenge as “the big game,” and had everybody sign a big poster with the ship date on it.
It may be that everybody was caught up in the moment. Junior people seemed to accept the challenge, but several senior people walked out muttering, “He's tried to hit these buttons before” or “That's an unrealistic schedule” but they weren't willing to speak up as that would be a CLM (career-limiting move).
A very similar scenario can have a different outcome: people respond to the challenge, they build an emotional connection to the project and the team, and they walk out jazzed up and ready to go.
What distinguishes the cases? There's no magic formula but these things affect it:
- Does the goal fit higher aspirations? People want to change the world in some way, not just make shareholders richer. (They don't mind something that does both.)
- Do people see where they can contribute? It's hard to be engaged if your contribution isn't important.
- Is it the right level of challenge, not too easy and not too hard? If it's too easy, it's not worth the emotional investment. If it's too hard, people don't want to engage as they know they'll fail. (This is like the idea of “flow,” when challenges and skills align. [Csikszentmihalyi]) People often don't mind a little stretch.
- Is it a free choice (free from undue pressure)? People want to be invited in, not ordered in.
What are the motivations you're encouraging? Extrinsic rewards (whether tangible, people-oriented, or special activities), or intrinsic motivation? The latter is more sustainable and self-reinforcing. [Martens]
Have you been caught in the trap of looking for appearances over results? Are you favoring drama and the appearance of busyness over actual productivity?
What sense of commitment are you after? If one party is providing estimates and the other side is interpreting it as promises, you'll have conflict.
Understand what you're looking for. Each type of commitment has its place. The right kind of commitment at the right time is extraordinarily powerful.
[Csikszentmihalyi] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial, 1990.
[DeMarco] Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. Dorset House, 1987.
[Martens] Rainer Martens. Successful Coaching (3/e). Human Kinetics, 1997.
[Searle] John R. Searle. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge University Press, 1969.
[Solomon] Robert Solomon and Fernando Flores. Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life. Oxford University Press, 1993.
[Winograd] Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores. Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Addison-Wesley, 1987.
Kevin Bradtke, Tom Kubit, Michele Matthews, and Doug Wake gave me valuable feedback and advice.
[Originally published Aug., 2009 at InformIT; republished here with their permission.]