In honor of Doctor Who being back on, I thought we should talk about a town called commitment. This is a town where everyone goes around making commitments to one another. One day, Madame Mayor called for a town meeting. At the beginning to the meeting, she said, “I commit that we will get through all the agenda items we have today…”. Just as she finished speaking a blue telephone box with the words Police Box began to materialize in the middle room…..
Recently, I suggested that estimates are not commitments and advised that when teams are asked for estimates, they should make an effort to understand if they are truly being asked for a commitment. Simple, right? Well, not so fast my friends. Commitments are an interesting thing with implications and ramifications on both individual and team behavior.
I once heard the story of a man who made the commitment to his dying wife that he would never remarry because he loved her so much. Years later, he met someone he feel madly in love with. What do you think happened to his commitment? If you make a commitment to attend a friends wedding, you are pledging to be at that friends wedding. You have made a promise (yes a promise) that you will do whatever you can do to be at your friends wedding. That’s a commitment. When we make commitments, we are implying that we have a lot of control over the final outcome. Some of you reading this are probably thinking that I’m taking this commitment thing a bit too far. Um, I don’t think so. My experience in life would suggest to me that when people say they are making a commitment to something, those who hear the commitment are largely interpreting it as a promise for the individual to do what they have said. This is why there is disappointment and frustration when commitments are not met.
Others may read this and say that anyone who sees a commitment as a promise (or something similar) is making a mistake and shouldn’t. But why shouldn’t they? Isn’t that at the end of the day what a commitment really is? Why would we attempt to redefine commitment in certain contexts?
Commitments inherently runs the risk of not being met. That is just a fact of life. Inclement weather can hit your town grounding all the flights and making it impossible to get to your best friends wedding. You can meet someone you fall madly in love with and remarry. What you thought would be a few lines of code changes turns out to be something much more involved. Things happen. Things happen every day. It’s important to realize that the more people that are involved in making a shared commitment, the larger the risk of it not being met. (This is another reason for small(er) teams in software development but I digress). After playing team sports for most of my life at a pretty competitive level, I learned that lesson the hard way. This is why you’ll rarely see a coach commit to wining a game (outcome) and most players would hedge on doing so. I mean we all saw how it ended for LeBron and Heat after promising “…not one, not two, not three…”.
Commitments also come in conflict with one another. Making a commitment to one thing very often impacts commitments to something else. Daily, I have to excuse myself from one meeting I committed to in order to attend another. Its not uncommon to ask a team to be committed to quality but then also ask them to commit to delivering X number of stories in an iteration – which commitment do you expect them to honor when there is conflict (and there will be a conflict)? The quality commitment or the number of stories commitment?
Commitments made too early can also lock us into a solution prematurely and prevent us from exercising other options that we may have had. We see this when teams make a wholesale investment in a particular solution to a problem making impossible to leverage any of the other options on the table. (Yes enterprise/solution architects, I am talking to us).
This is the very reason why we should be careful what we make commitments on and when we make those commitments. In knowledge work (and software development in particular), I suggest considering the following when thinking/talking about commitments:
- Do not make goals, commitments
- Have (and understand your) options
- When (and if) you have to make commitments, make them at the last responsible moment
- Choose commitments to behaviors and causes over commitments to particular outcomes
- Consult people before committing them to a cause or outcome
- Don’t make a commitment you don’t think you can keep
- When you make commitments, do your best to honor them
I had started this blog post before I read http://commitment-thebook.com/ but I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read the book to do so. Some insightful nuggets are contained within it.
Commitments are valuable and precious, use them wisely. Now that sounds like something the good Doctor would say.
Photo of Tardis: By Rept0n1x (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons”