“To promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing. ~Mark Twain”

Any initiative sits on the foundation of someones commitment to see it through to the end. For small projects or startups, it might be a single person saying I’ll finish what I start. For more complex initiatives you may be talking about “stakeholders” who have enough sway to lobby management, advisory boards and steering committees. Looked at from this perspective, it follows that some of the most successful people around are the ones who can influence others to follow through, which raises an important question: How do you get people to keep their promises?

First off you can bet that in business, you’re not often dealing with promises like: “Sure!, it’s no problem at all, I’d love to help out!” These types of promises are great; they’re given freely, and at most require a friendly reminder a couple of days ahead (if that). In business you’re often dealing with promises that people made because they had to, and these are commitments that are just waiting to be broken.

Managing Partner: … Gotham Air need help, something’s wrong with their [insert system/process name here], their VP is a good friend of mine and I said we’d help out. Can you get down there tomorrow?

You: Well, uhhh, remember we discussed that my wife is due to give birth pretty soon …

Boss [interrupting]: Great! I knew we could count on you …

[several weeks later]

Managing Partner: I thought you said things at Gotham had gone well!? I just got off the phone with the VP and it sounds like the same old story!?

You: I left them with a clear roadmap outlining how to dig themselves out of this mess, I guess they didn’t follow through …

So what went wrong? Well the short story is the team you were sent in to help, promised to collaborate with you because a senior VP imposed you on them, i.e. They were made to collaborate, and unfortunately you weren’t able to capitalize on this half hearted promise. Yes, being a savvy consultant, you may have won them over in minutes, and during the course of 2 weeks you helped them build a roadmap in a highly collaborative joint effort. But their commitment to actually follow through and implement the roadmap left the building about the same time you did. Why? Because they ended up thinking they were helping you.

You were running against the clock, and you sensed a little bit of hostility from the team. They warmed up to you, but you couldn’t bank on much collaboration. So you did the work yourself, you conducted workshops, requested sign offs, ultimately met your deadlines and your commitments. But at the end of a whirlwind effort, they didn’t see themselves as the primary stakeholders, they see you as the person responsible. Hope that resonates. Let me say it again. People in these situations often think they are helping you, when in fact it’s the other way around. So they never mentally commit to follow through on any developed plans. If anything, they’ll assume you’re coming back to implement the roadmap. Which is great if that’s the plan, but not so great if it isn’t. In the end, a great plan never gets implemented and everyone loses.

In Influence, Dr Robert Cialdini, tells the story of captured American GI’s who found themselves in Chinese PoW camps. The Chinese used a technique to get US PoW’s to commit to an idea that democracy was flawed. And they did it without physical harm. How? By simply getting the US soldiers to concede to making simple written statements that raised doubts about democracy. These weren’t necessarily outright damning statements of condemnation, nor were they particularly lengthy (just bullet points at first). They were just minor concessions (analogous to … sure, ok I’ll work with the external consultant, I agree he can probably help … all the while thinking there’s no way they can help).

Once they had some of these brief concessions in writing, they’d ask the PoW’s to provide more detail. After that they might get them to read what they’d written to other PoW’s, or even do a radio broadcast to other PoW camps. No significant reward was ever given, perhaps just a piece of fresh fruit. This denied the PoW’s of an opportunity to say: I did it for the money, or for some significant privileges. They had to own what they’d said, because it was all there, in their own words. When they returned to the US, many former PoW’s from Chinese camps would be more sympathetic towards communism, saying things like: “democracy is great for the US, but communism might be a better fit in Asia”. Remember these were hardened GI’s and patriots.

So how can you use this? Basically you have to find ways to get people to explain why they want you to do something, or why they’re approving something. This is both a challenge and an art; it takes imagination, creativity, practice, and it can be difficult at first. But the pay off is huge once you get the hang of it. Everyone talks about shared responsibility, but this is something entirely different. This is about getting people to fight for something because they helped define it, and they publicly said it was the right thing to do.

At one of my former companies, I once worked with a project manager who would intentionally make small mistakes in internal meetings, just so others would correct him, and in so doing emphatically voice their opinion:

Manager: Oh I get it, you mean we need 3 months to get that done?

Me: No, I mean we can get that done in 1 month!, if we have x y z in place…

Manager: Right, ok. That sounds great, can you send me a spreadsheet with a rough plan on it?

Pretty cool huh?

Before I wrap this up, I wanted to talk a little bit about the ethics of this approach. Just remember, you’re not trying to manipulate people into making promises they don’t want to make. Your goal is just to get people to follow through on a commitment they already made, which ultimately results in their success. Always go with a do no harm policy, and move forward knowing your integrity is intact.

p.s. Have you been in similar situations before, how did it go? What worked or didn’t work for you? Please leave a comment below because I’d love to hear about your experience.

Till next time!

Subscribe to this blog (I don’t do spam, just quality posts)