Implicit Commitments

· October 24, 2018

A lot of waste and unhappiness in people’s work comes when they are let down by others, or they let other people down. 

This happens with explicit commitments - deadlines missed, things not delivered, and so on; generally organisations are structured to both measure and manage those kind of disappointments. 

The harder category is implicit commitments - things where one party is operating under the expectation something will happen, but the other party is either unaware, or not entirely on board. These lead to unintended dependency chains, frustration, and communication breakdowns.

I commonly see, and act out, two patterns. One is that someone’s role or type of work changes, but they don’t explicitly communicate that they can’t or won’t continue operating how they used to. The second is that people agree to some activity with a variant of “I’ll try”. Implicit in that is almost always that the agreed activity is of lower priority than other work, but that leaves a huge zone of uncertainty - if the person trying believes that “never” is acceptable but the requester believes the “end of the quarter” is the latest possible, there is room for serious disappointment. 

A good sense of a healthy organization is when people feel OK calling out potential implicit commitments without it feeling to the other person that they are backed in to a corner, or trapped in commitments they can no longer deliver.