Promises, Promises: Bridging the Gap Between Strategy and Action

A 2007 HBR article called “Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution” starts off by asserting that despite the toolkit most managers have to turn strategy into real action, “…critical initiatives stall, and important work goes undone. Emerging business opportunities fall by the wayside, or even worse, into the hands of more agile competitors.”

Nearly nine years since that article was first penned, this statement still rings alarmingly true for many organizations.

Why Execution Fails

What happens between “strategy” and “action”? Why does execution fail? For a variety of all-too-common reasons, according to HBR authors Sull and Spinosa.

Some reasons include:

  • Employees may not be aligned with the company’s initiatives (or worse, may not fully understand them or even know what they are).
  • Functional silos stand in the way of the coordination necessary for an organization to successfully take advantage of new opportunities.
  • An executive wears too many hats – being in charge of direct reports and a far-off web of suppliers, partners and workers.

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This is where promise-based management comes in. “Managers cannot overcome these and other obstacles to execution by doing more of the same; instead, they must fundamentally rethink how work gets done,” explain Sull and Spinosa. Promises are the very “strands that weave together coordinated activity in organizations.”

As you create and manage promises, you should understand the three phases of a promise: meeting of minds, making it happen, and closing the loop. Read about each in detail here.

The 5 Attributes of a Good Promise

A well-crafted promise has a certain set of qualities, explained below. I’ll talk about these within the context of everyday life to help you understand their importance.

  1. Public –In which of the following scenarios do you think you’re most likely to achieve a goal – when you’ve told others about it and feel committed and accountable – or when you’ve stayed silent and kept that goal to yourself? You know the answer to that – and that’s exactly why a “public” promise is usually more effective.
  2. Active – Sull and Spinosa offer an amusing analogy for this attribute, explaining that in some organizations, requests are tossed carelessly, much like a paperboy races through his route hurling newspapers onto doorsteps (or wherever else they happen to land). Obviously, promise-based management should be active and collaborative – a team effort.
  3. Voluntary – When anyone feels “forced” to do something, the outcome usually isn’t very good. When you feel pressured, the result is usually less desirable than when you agree willingly to do something and you feel a sense of personal accountability towards a positive outcome. The same holds true in management.
  4. Explicit – I tell all my clients that it’s virtually impossible to achieve a successful outcome when your goals are unclear. This becomes especially important when you’re making promises in settings where the parties either have cultural or environmental backgrounds that could make the promise open to varying interpretations. Stay away from vague, fuzzy promises to reduce the risk of future misunderstandings.
  5. Mission-based – It’s often said that to make change happen successfully, every person involved needs to see the value in what’s happening. That’s why in promise-based management, the promise must articulate not only the “what”, but also the all-important “why”.

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