Admit it: Your company sometimes fails to meet its promises. 

It's okay. It happens. If it's not one promise, it's another. Perhaps you're delivering to your customers, but slacking on the career-development commitments you've made to employees. Perhaps you're acing investor relations, but not quite fulfilling promises with suppliers, partners, and other shareholders. And maybe it's a small, internal thing. Maybe you simply forgot to post pictures from the company picnic. 

The question is, How can you prevent all of this benign negligence from taking place? In a terrific article in strategy+business, consultant Elizabeth Doty outlines several project-management techniques you can use to improve at upholding your commitments. Here are three of them: 

1. Connect the dots between groups. "The single biggest barrier to delivering on our commitments as an organization is all the individual leaders striving to deliver on their personal commitments," is what one senior executive told Doty. 

This problem--in which individual leaders go out on their own to make promises--is the downside of what happens when leaders take "ownership" of projects or ideas. Yes, they're action-oriented. Yes, they're making things happen. Unfortunately, none of them is keeping track of what everyone else is promising. 

The solution? One time-honored technique is the so-called RACI model, which is a visual map of everyone's project-management duties.

RACI stands for responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed. That's four levels of "answerability." Simply put, a RACI model lists the members of a team, in table form, and delineates their levels of answerability for every aspect of a project. Specifically, the table should designate one person responsible for coordinating what all other team members are doing. This one person needs to stay in constant two-way communication with team members, to make sure that there are no redundancies or inconsistencies in the promises they make. 

2. Continually check for contradictions. "It's funny, but many companies are playing both sides of an issue and don't know it," confides one corporate consultant to Doty. "Often, the individuals are just down the hall from each other, but they don't talk."

The basic idea here is simple. You can't just communicate once, and leave it at that. You have to stay diligent in preventing team members from making implausible promises to one group or another. You have to err on the side of over-communicating about who's responsible for what. You have to initiate those conversations--even if it seems like you don't need to because your teammates are right down the hall and should somehow figure it out. 

It isn't easy. Projects often suffer from "scope creep," growing larger or more complex once you start executing them in ways you couldn't have anticipated. When this happens, when a project veers off the script, that's when resorting to a RACI model can be especially valuable. "At the beginning of a project, you can't always anticipate what responsibilities will be fuzzy," notes consultant Maya Townsend. "In the heat of a project, you can, and RACI helps people talk about the fuzziness without blaming and identify the best way to move forward." 

3. Make fewer, better commitments. A "better" commitment, in this case, is one you know you can fulfill. How do you know you can fulfill it? Well, usually you can fulfill it if the task costs very little and only requires one person to actually execute it.

The more it costs, and the more people it requires, the less likely it is you'll meet the commitment. 

Here's the trick: Can you find commitments that create value for others--your customers, your employees, your other shareholders--which are also low-cost and minimally draining of employee time?

The more of those you find, the better your commitments will be. "But too often," laments Doty, "professionals make expensive promises that miss the mark for stakeholders."

The classic example is the salesperson offering a discount to close a sale. Not only does the discount potentially break a promise to teammates expecting a certain margin on the sale, but it also presumes that the customer's view of "value" is strictly price-based.

In reality, notes Doty, "what the customer needs is an assurance that the rep is acting as a trusted advisor." In other words, you shouldn't make your commitments based on presumptions of what the customer wants. You need to take the time--sometimes it requires as many as 10 meetings--to learn and respect the pain points of your customer. "When you take the time to understand your stakeholders' needs," she writes, "you can target your commitments to the things that make a difference."

Published on: Aug 4, 2014