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Friday, March 07, 2008

Promises, promises

Writer and speaker Lewis Smedes says:

Yes, somewhere people still make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough because they promised once to see it through. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. They stay with people who have become pains in the neck. They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make. I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not
abandon, then you are like God.

What a marvelous thing a promise is! When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty. When a person makes a promise, she stakes a claim on her personal freedom and power.When you make a promise, you take a hand in creating your own future.
Lewis Smedes, "The Power of Promises," A Chorus of Witnesses, edited by Long and Plantinga, (Eerdmans, 1994)

Architect Craig Galati in this posting, Keeping the Hard Promises, writes about the importance of sticking by your word, and doing what you say you will do. He of course is talking about meaningful and important promises; not the soft things that don't really matter. Indeed, living up to -- and going beyond your promises -- are essential for successful ongoing relationships and brand/business harmony.

This applies both internally and externally; internally with colleagues and employees (and employers!); externally with clients and suppliers. But what happens when you are in a situation when you fail to complete your promises; perhaps because, made in haste, they are unsustainable, because you cannot complete your end of the bargain because someone else or some external circumstance intervened, or because you simply forgot you made it; or your recollection of your promise is unclear?

I suppose a perfect world answer would be "Never get in that situation" but I certainly cannot claim perfection. In fact, right now I am torn about promises I've made which I now think would be foolish and expensive to fulfill. I know I can 'weasel out' of them on technical grounds (in essence the other parties also didn't totally achieve their obligations that are at the root of the promises) but this doesn't feel right. I don't need to resolve this issue immediately -- especially since tonight I will be heading on vacation for a week -- but I still need to find the right answer that respects the situation and realities, yet maintains the essential trust we need in business.

Craig, in his posting, however, offers some more practical answers.

Practice discipline.
People who have fallen into the trap of not fulfilling promises are not bad people. They have just become undisciplined in their thoughts and actions. They have become more accustomed to telling people what they think people want to hear and less accustomed to considering the implications of the promises that they make. This creates a slippery slope that will take discipline to climb. Take the time necessary to understand your commitment so that you make better decisions and in turn, better promises.

Words matter.
I’m sure that not a single one of us would tell a client, “I’m going to deliver your project two days later than I tell you.” Yet many of us do deliver late, violating the promise. Think of your actions in terms of the promise given; make a promise you are sure you can keep.
Stay focused on important things. Each day we are hit with many things to do. Our task list grows out of proportion with the actual urgency of these tasks. Stay focused on the items that are truly important to you and your clients. I suggest rather than just keeping a to do list, that you develop a promise list and hold it to a high level of importance. Be careful of how many promises you make. Take a critical look at your list and be honest–can you really commit to this new promise?

People don’t trust those who don’t fulfill their promises.
Have you ever been in a meeting where a chronic under performer promises to do something? You can almost hear people’s eyes rolling back. Everyone is thinking, “Yeah, right, sure.” Don’t become the one who loses trust by not keeping your promises. It takes a lot more work to regain someone’s trust than it does to lose that trust in the first place.

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