Visible Promises: How to Move Fast without Breaking Things

Jeff Sussna
Aug 9, 2018 · 3 min read

Companies in every industry are under pressure to move faster while at the same time delivering coherent customer experiences. They need the ability to continuously respond to changing markets without sacrificing operational effectiveness. How do we make sure we can move fast without breaking things, whether those things are customer satisfaction, compliance and security, IT infrastructure, or shared direction across teams and disciplines?

Agile organizations move faster by breaking things down into smaller pieces. Agile, DevOps, microservices, design sprints, and continuous delivery all enable faster delivery of smaller units of value. By themselves, though, none of these approaches addresses the problem of reconnecting the pieces back into a customer-focused whole.

The interconnected nature of digital services doesn’t lend itself to industrial scaling models. Instead of striving to enforce top-down alignment, we need an adaptive approach that lets the parts of an organization continuously realign themselves with each other. With this approach, teams operate as mutual service providers. They shift their attention outwards from their own activities to focus on the promises they make to other teams, and the effectiveness with which they keep those promises.

A promise represents an intention to provide benefit. AirBnb promises to help you find a satisfactory place to stay while on a trip. The “Check Balance” button on a banking website promises to show you the correct current balance in your checking account. An Agile development team promises to deliver working code every two weeks. A network infrastructure team promises to enable communications between applications without compromising security or violating compliance requirements.

The nature of a promise as something that can be broken ironically increases the likelihood of success by surfacing the need to design for resilience and repair. Every e-commerce company promises not to let your credit card number get stolen. The ones that design for the possibility of a security breach improve customer trust by handling breaches gracefully, in contrast to those who degrade their reputations by handling breaches clumsily through lack of planning.

People and organizations implicitly make (and often break) promises every day. By making our promises visible, we can better understand our internal and external customers’ needs, as well as how best to serve them. We serve customers by making the right promises and maximizing our ability to keep them. Making promises visible involves asking ourselves:

  • What promises are we making;
  • How well are we keeping them;
  • Are they the right promises;
  • What promises from others do we depend on; and most importantly
  • What promises do our customers make

We can apply these questions to every layer of a digital service, from its software and human-based customer interfaces all the way down to its physical infrastructure. Continuously uncovering their current and preferred promises focuses each part of an organization on its connections to the larger context. It provides a lever for continuously improving, not just functional and non-functionality quality, but more importantly usefulness.

Visible promises frame work in terms of empathy and systems thinking. They make the needs of those around us, and how best to help them satisfy those needs, a central part of daily operations. When we weave promises into agile practices, we transform continuous delivery into continuous benefit. We make alignment the purpose of agility.

The intuitive quality of a promise is its most compelling characteristic. It means just what people think it means. We can thus naturally infuse promises into existing practices across the design-build-operate spectrum:

  • Service design: services & platforms as networks of promises that enable a customer journey
  • LeanUX: promises as hypotheses to be validated
  • DevOps: development & operations as mutual customers making promises to each other
  • SRE: helping application teams make & keep promises of performance, resilience, etc.
  • QA: promises as testable requirements
  • Monitoring: business & technical promises as things to be measured
  • Agile: retrospectives & incident reviews as opportunities to uncover broken or ineffective promises

Visible promises build customer-centeredness into the fabric of an organization’s work. They function as a calibration tool cross-functional teams can use to improve both what they do and how they do it. When teams operate based on visible promises, alignment becomes an emergent property that flows through the organization in the form of continuous mutual learning.

If you want to learn how to integrate promises into your organization, contact Sussna Associates about our Visible Promises workshops at or For a deeper exploration of service design and promises, read my book Designing Delivery.

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