Negotiating Achievable Commitments

People sometimes make promises even when they know they can’t deliver. Everyone loses when this happens. Here’s how to avoid that trap.

Karl Wiegers
The Startup
Published in
7 min readJun 15, 2019

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A photo of two men shaking hands.
Photo by Constantin Wenning on Unsplash

I once observed a discussion between Sarah, a senior manager, and Rob, a software project manager, about a new project. “How long will this project take?” Sarah asked. “Two years,” replied Rob. “That’s too long,” said Sarah. “I need it in six months.” So what did Rob say? “Okay.”

Now, what changed in those few seconds? Nothing! The project didn’t shrink by a factor of four. The development team didn’t become four times larger or four times as productive. The project manager simply said what he knew Sarah wanted to hear. Not surprisingly, the project took more than two years to complete. Rob’s commitment to Sarah’s unrealistic six-month target was completely unachievable, and yet he made the promise anyway. Everyone involved — development team, management, customers — was disappointed.

Successful projects — and successful relationships — are based on realistic commitments, not on fantasies and empty promises. This article describes several ways to improve your ability to make, and keep, achievable commitments.

Making Commitments

A commitment is a promise one person or group makes to another. The commitment might involve delivering a specific work product or performing a particular service by a specified time and at a certain level of quality. A project involves many commitments between customers, managers, and team members. Some projects have one formal commitments in the form of legally binding contracts, negotiated by attorneys who have only their own clients’ best interests in mind.

Commitments accumulate in dependency chains, like the one shown in Figure 1. Each commitment recipient depends on those who made the commitments to deliver. If everyone negotiates achievable commitments in good faith, they can rely on each other with confidence. Otherwise, the commitment chain is a house of cards. Any unfulfilled lower-level commitments will topple the deck.

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Karl Wiegers
The Startup

Author of 14 books, mostly on software. PhD in organic chemistry. Guitars, wine, and military history fill the voids. karlwiegers.com and processimpact.com