by Heidi Araya and Mark Burgess

What tools do we have for understanding the dynamics of an organization? For years now, leadership has been obsessed with agile, and companies often spend millions on so-called “agile transformations.” It’s certainly not the only game in town, but its commercialization has exceeded the others many times over. As a commercial enterprise, some of what falls under the aegis of Agile can be regarded with suspicion. Trademarks fly and so-called best practices rain from fully authorized heavens.

A very different kind of tool, less prescriptive and more analytical, has also come out of Information Science — actually, distributed computing. It’s called Promise Theory (PT), and although it wasn’t designed as a management framework, it’s surprisingly simple formulations about cooperation turn out to reveal deep knowledge. What applies to the scaling of computer systems also applies to the scaling of human processes. In fact, taking it a step further, it suggests that we can understand human-technology cooperation as a kind of engineering discipline. If that gets your imagination going, then stay tuned.

There’s no shortage of topics we could discuss with the help of Promise Theory, but we have to start somewhere…

“Inward or outward?”

PT emphasizes that promises need to foster ongoing relationships, in which promises are seen to be kept. This is how we build trust. Consider the following statement that was dropped recently on social media:

“Most CEOs have a closer relationship with their customers than with their team. They know where their money comes from!”

“Most middle managers and workers are focused on their own work environment. They are self-obsessed, navel-gazing, even narcissistic!”

These sweeping accusations may hold some truth, and might help to explain some of the dysfunctions of organizational thinking. Where do practices like scrum, standup, sprint, etc fit into these diametric points of view? An effective role of leaders is to bring cohesion to an organizational hierarchy. If people look inward, we neglect the all important source of survival. If people look only outward, they might topple the house of cards they are climbing on in their haste to reach that source.

In a Promise Theory view of cooperation, we can take away titles, command hierarchy, and replace everything by two abstractions: agents (could be human, machine, animal, vegetable, or mineral), and the promises or impositions they make to one another. Hierarchy is not about who commands whom, but rather how information flows and whether decisions are based on consistent information.

Agents are the sources of intent in any collaboration. Goals and policies might codify some intentions, but they can’t begin to capture the full spectrum of intentions that make the wheels of an organization go ‘round.

Promises and Impositions are two forms of announcing intentions through interaction. A promise is an expression of your own intent. An imposition is an attempt to induce the cooperation of someone else, without prior invitation. At the most simplistic level, PT says: if you are imposing instead of promising, success is much less certain. If a leader promises on behalf of a company, without a consensus, he or she could be trying to make a promise on behalf of someone who hasn’t agreed to it. That’s imposition. A customer would be rightly suspicious of this. On what authority (or in what version of reality) does even the CEO get to predict a future that hasn’t even been discussed and accepted as a collective intent?

If workers concern themselves entirely with access to espresso machines, working rights, benefits, and company culture, are they forgetting the very promises they are supposed to make as part of a company? At what scale do we make decisions? Where are the boundaries of responsibility?

Unlike society, business has a purpose — -a mission. When we join a company, it’s part of an often “unwritten contract” that we are all in the same boat trying to sail to the same destination. Yet, in practice, most employees have never promised explicitly what they intend to do for one another, or for the collective company. At best we impose job titles upon them, which aren’t even descriptions of their actual work. As we’ve visited companies, to help them diagnose why they get stuck, a simple observation stands out: almost no one has ever been asked to state for the record what they promise to do for each other! How can people and technology offer each other services without a user manual?

In stand-ups, people might half-heartedly promise what they intend to do for the rest of the day — but not in a lasting relationship sort of way. One doesn’t leave standup with a sense of whom we could go to in the future, when we’re in a bind — — more of a one-time impersonal, transactional view of intended progress to an abstract completion goal that everyone felt was expected of them (perhaps with a sense of imposition). Someone else’s roadmap masquerades as an agreed plan for mutual and voluntary cooperation. Moreover, the CEO is unlikely to be part of that pool of intent, so there is an obvious disconnect between organizational layers, instead of participation and working relationship.

Thinking in Promises

So how do we use promises effectively, and what can one do to make more effective promises?

  • Start by clarifying the collective intent (e.g. of the organization or team) on the scale of action, so that everyone is headed in the same direction — what does the organization promise its customers?
  • Don’t imagine that promises only apply to the “chain of command”. They’re everywhere, from the lunch break to the product design.
  • Ask everyone (and query every tool) what promises are you making towards that collective goal? Promises align collective intent, inform everyone of their responsibilities and relevance to outcomes. They also foster ongoing relationships.
  • In other words, make sure everyone knows what it is they are promising to do for each other, and how everyone can make use of those promises. Unless promises are both offered and accepted, they are empty of purpose.
  • And don’t make promises on behalf of others — imposition is usually ineffective.

Herein lie both the boundaries of responsibility and the source of motivation between people and teams. We all need to remind ourselves that effective promises don’t happen by job title or by memo — they’re only achieved through ongoing interactions, which only gradually settle into an equilibrium of understanding. What each person promises impacts our work, from `sprints´ to customer care, to daily welfare, and esprit de corps.

If you’d like to learn more about Promise Theory, check out these YouTube videos, or the upcoming classes at the Open Leadership Network.

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