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
Jun 15, 2019 · 7 min read
Two men shaking hands.

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.

This diagram shows that team members make commitments to each other and to the project manager, suppliers make commitments to the PM, the PM makes commitments to the project sponsor, and the project sponsor makes commitments to customers. Commitments flow the opposite direction as well.
This diagram shows that team members make commitments to each other and to the project manager, suppliers make commitments to the PM, the PM makes commitments to the project sponsor, and the project sponsor makes commitments to customers. Commitments flow the opposite direction as well.

Figure 1. A sequence of commitments leads to a multilevel dependency chain.

Meaningful commitments must meet two conditions:

1. We must make commitments freely.

Powerful people can pressure us to say yes, but most people won’t take seriously an impossible commitment that is thrust upon them. People might pretend to make a commitment they don’t intend to fulfill to end an unpleasant conversation, but lip service isn’t a true commitment.

2. Commitments must be explicitly stated and clearly understood by all parties involved.

Ambiguity about the specifics of the commitment reduces the chance that it will be satisfied. Consider writing a brief summary of each major commitment you exchange with someone else. This confirms the communication and establishes a shared expectation of accountability. Unless I write them down, it’s easy to lose sight of promises I’ve made to others and of things I’m expecting from other people. I keep two running lists in my everyday life: To Do and Waiting For. They keep things from from falling between the cracks.

Negotiating Commitments

Negotiations are in order whenever there’s a gap between the outcomes stakeholders demand and your best prediction of the future as embodied in project estimates. Principled negotiation, a method to strive for mutually acceptable agreements, involves the following four key precepts (see Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton).

Separate the people from the problem. Negotiation is difficult when emotions get in the way. It’s also hard to negotiate with people who wield more organizational power than you do. Before you dismiss a manager or customer as an unreasonable slave driver who makes impossible demands, recognize her legitimate concerns and objectives, including commitments others might have made that put her in a bind.

Focus on interests, not positions. Someone who sets an aggressive demand in a negotiation can find it difficult to change that position. If you define an opposing but equally entrenched position, conflict is inevitable. Rather than reaching an impasse by defending your terrain to the death, seek to understand the interests behind each party’s stated position.

For instance, suppose your company’s marketing manager requests an unrealistic delivery date. Perhaps his real interest is to have a demo version available for a trade show. Your interest as a project manager might be to avoid burning out your team and establishing a track record of failure. Maybe you and the marketing manager can agree on a reduced set of product capabilities that would satisfy both sets of interests and constraints.

Invent options for mutual gain. Negotiation is the way to close the gap between polarized positions. Begin with a win-win objective in mind, and look for creative ways to satisfy each party’s interests. Think of feasible outcomes to which you can commit and present those as options. Consider conditions the other party might be able to change, such as offloading other responsibilities from your team, that could let you make a stronger commitment.

Insist on using objective criteria. Data from previous projects and estimates based on a rational analysis will help you negotiate with someone who insists his grandmother could finish the project in half the time you’ve proposed. When you’re relying on commitments from an outside party, such as a subcontractor or a vendor, trust data and history over promises. And remember that an estimate is not the same as a promise. A common cause of commitment failure is making “best case” commitments rather than “expected case” commitments.

Modifying Commitments

Project commitments can fall by the wayside if the requirements turn out to be technically unfeasible or especially challenging, if customers change them, or if the stated requirements were just the tip of the real requirements iceberg. Project stakeholders must alter their expectations and commitments in the face of evolving information.

Inevitably, project realities — features, staff, budgets, schedules — will change, problems will arise, and risks will materialize. Yes, even on agile projects. The project’s decision makers need to know how to respond. Possible negotiating angles include:

  • Can some lower-priority features wait for a later release?
  • Can delivery be delayed? By how long?
  • Can you move more developers onto the project?
  • Must quality be compromised to meet other, higher-priority constraints?

If it becomes apparent that you team won’t meet a commitment, tell those affected promptly. Don’t pretend you’re on schedule until it’s too late to make adjustments. Letting someone know early on that you can’t fulfill a commitment builds respect for your integrity, even if the stakeholders aren’t thrilled that you can’t deliver on the original promise.

Your Commitment Ethic

I once managed a good developer who always said “yes” when I asked her to take on a new responsibility. However, she often didn’t deliver on schedule. There was simply no way she could complete everything she’d agreed to do, despite her best intentions and hard work.

A meaningful commitment ethic includes the ability to say “no.” Here are some other ways to say “no” that might go over better than a stark refusal.

  • “Sure, I can do that by Friday. What would you like me to not do instead?”
  • “We can’t get that feature into this iteration and still finish on schedule. Can it wait until the next iteration, or would you rather defer something else?”
  • “I can do that, but it’s not as high on the priority list as my other obligations. Let me suggest someone else who might be able to help you more quickly than I can.”

I practice this personal philosophy:

Never make a commitment that you know you can’t fulfill.”

My personal preference is to under-commit and over-deliver. A track record of making realistic performance estimates and fulfilling commitments earns credibility. That credibility improves your future ability to negotiate problematic schedules or other commitment requests.

Once I was discussing process improvement plans with my department’s aggressive senior manager, three levels above me. Fred was pressuring me to agree to a timetable that my group had concluded was not remotely feasible. When I resisted, he grudgingly moved his objective out several months, but even that goal was pure fantasy. Finally I took a deep breath and said, “Fred, I’m not going to commit to that date.” Fred literally did not know what to say. I don’t think anyone had ever before refused to make a commitment he demanded.

I explained our analysis and reasoning to Fred, along with data from other organizations that had taken a similar process-improvement journey. I told him, “We’re not going to work any less hard if we have more time to do it, and our morale will be higher if we’re not set up for certain failure.” After some discussion, Fred reluctantly agreed to a more plausible target date that our team believed we could achieve.

As a project manager, don’t force your team members commit to outcomes they don’t believe to be achievable. If you fear someone is getting in over his head, discuss the commitment details, assumptions, the risks of failing to meet the commitment, and other obligations that could get in the way. Create an environment in which your team members can turn to you for help with negotiation, priority adjustments, and resource reallocations.

Unfulfilled promises ultimately lead to unhappy people and unsuccessful projects. Build a realistic commitment ethic in your team — and in yourself.

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This article is adapted from Practical Project Initiation by Karl Wiegers. Karl is the Principal Consultant at Process Impact, a software development consulting and training company in Portland, Oregon. Karl’s most recent book is The Thoughtless Design of Everyday Things. His next book, Software Development Pearls, will be published in Fall 2021.

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Karl Wiegers

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Author of 12 books on software, design, management, consulting, and a mystery novel. Guitars, wine, and military history fill the voids. https://karlwiegers.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Karl Wiegers

Written by

Author of 12 books on software, design, management, consulting, and a mystery novel. Guitars, wine, and military history fill the voids. https://karlwiegers.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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