There’s Still Promise

Life would be so much simpler without everyone else around.

Just imagine how much less complicated things would be if we didn’t have to deal with anybody else.  Nobody’s schedule to meet; no worrying about how I look, how I’m “doing” or when that promotion/new customer/winning lottery number, etc. might arrive. Say goodbye to office politics (and any other politics). No more waiting in lines for that Grande Double Decaf, Soy Latte at Starbucks. Getting dressed in the morning is a snap, and the commute would be a dream.

Dealing with other human beings can definitely put a damper on things.  Especially when we have to rely on them for things that are important to us—or when they’re relying on us for things that matter to them.  Like in families, or friendships, communities, organizations, nations.

For today we’ll just focus on organizations; partly because that’s where many of us spend a lot of time, and also because it can be easier to see how all of our various human “dependencies” actually work in organizational settings.


Same Organization – Different Perspective
We have lots of ways of looking at organizations.  We can see them as hierarchical structures with positions, authority and reporting lines (as in traditional org charts); we can see them as matrixes with defined functional and product lines and relationships; we can see them as groups of teams that interact within larger teams…Lots of different organizational models out there.

Every organizational model reflects and reinforces a particular way of seeing, thinking about and behaving.  Each model has its strengths and limitations, and each may be better suited to different types of organization, different cultures, different times.

Over the past couple of decades, a new view of organizations has been emerging that I first learned about in the mid 90’s from a friend and mentor of mine, Rafael Echeverria, PhD.  This view opens all sorts of doors to individual and organizational performance improvement that simply don’t show up in other other models.

This new view reminds us that, however quicker our commute might be with nobody else around, the fact is that we’re not here alone, and we are dependent upon other human beings—for perhaps everything that we do, touch, think and even feel.  We are inescapably reliant upon other people.  And a surprising number of folks are dependent upon us, every single day of our lives—including in our organizations.

The gist of this new perspective is that organizations are fundamentally networks, or “webs” of dependencies between people within the organization and outside.

Now, let’s replace the phrase “web of dependencies” with “web of promises…”  Suddenly (at least for me), the organization has been transformed from a passive place where people are filling a space on the org chart or matrix, depending, waiting for somebody else to do something–to a dynamic place where these same people now have tremendous power to think up new possibilities, make meaningful offers to others, grow their reputation and build trust, and expect commitments to be honored by others.

Here’s why the Web of Promises perspective makes so much sense: Because fundamentally, the only reason we come together in organizations is to accomplish things that we can’t accomplish alone.  And accomplishing those things requires that we coordinate our actions together so that different people in the organization agree (promise) to do certain things, in certain ways, by certain times, which everybody else can rely upon.  This enables everybody else in the organization (and many outside) to promise to do other things in certain ways, by certain times, and so on.   

The real power of this perspective comes from how we think about all those hundreds, often thousands of promises that comprise even small organizations.  All of these promises are constantly being made, kept, broken, renegotiated, forgotten, ignored, fretted over.  Every single one of these promises is made between human beings, whether they realize it or not.  And for every promise, there is someone who wants something of value to be done (a “customer”), and the person whose job it is to produce or deliver that something of value (a “performer”).

The Promise of Promises
When we learn to see our organizations as webs of promises, and ourselves as both customers and performers (we’re always playing either of these roles at various times throughout our day), we discover that we have the power to create value for our colleagues, our bosses, even our reports, that we never realized before by managing our promises effectively.  We do this by understanding and embodying the specific practices involved in making, keeping and honoring our promises effectively.  The more we do this, the more people want to rely on us for more and more important things.  In other words, they trust us more and value our contributions more.

The other nice thing about this perspective is that it gives us powerful tools for identifying and addressing organizational disconnects, misalignment, poor performance, and weak accountability, without having to impugn people’s character or attribute personal blame.  That’s really important to me as a consultant and coach. Best of all, learning to manage promises is something that anybody can do.  The only negative side effect is that that there may be more and more people wanting lining up who want to give you that promotion, seek out your views about office politics, or buy your next Latte.  But hey, that’s just life with human beings…