Promises-Based Management

Organizational chart of three men with one man on top of two others

An article in the April 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review discusses one of the biggest challenges in managing and growing a 21st century business — namely getting business stakeholders (employees, clients, partners, and vendors) — to actually do/deliver upon what they promise.

The article has a number of incredibly salient points for the modern manager/entrepreneur, including:

There is a prejudice amongst “action-oriented” managers/entrepreneurs for “doing” versus “talking.” While a laudable mindset, the reality of a knowledge economy is that much of the doing IS actually talking. Meetings, both formal and informal, in-person and on the telephone, are much of the work of the modern manager. Critically, the quality of a modern organization can be measured by the degree to which these meetings translate into action items, or promises, that are actually delivered upon. Great organizations create internal dynamics whereby promises are made in meetings and then delivered/executed upon in the field. Poor and mediocre organizations, in context, are weak in both defining the mission-critical promises and in their actual fulfillment.

So how to make and keep promises in a modern workplace? Key characteristics of effective business promises are that they are public, active, voluntary, explicit, and mission-based.

The article sites an excellent example of the power of effective promises with the Royal Bank of Scotland’s 2000 acquisition of NatWest, a bank three times its size.

RBS did not make the first or the highest bid for NatWest, but it won the prize by promising to improve the target company’s operating performance. RBS didn’t make vague statements about projected synergies or scale efficiencies; instead, its leaders publicly promised to deliver on 154 specific initiatives that, combined, would grow revenues by 390 million pounds and cut costs by 1.2 billion pounds. Moreover, RBS pledged that its managers would take personal responsibility for delivering on those initiatives.

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