Staying in action
the effective use of requests and promises
Elizabeth Speck, Elizabeth Speck Consulting
Virginia, a department manager, needs some information. She asks Barbara, her new assistant, “Can you pull the training records for the past three years? I’d like to know which staff have been trained on the ABC machine.” Expecting a concise list of the names of trained staff on her desk the next morning, Virginia is surprised to see three thick “Training Record” binders stacked there instead. She sighs deeply and goes to talk to Barbara.
A project team is meeting to prepare its status report for the Executive Team meeting, being held the next day. Ted, the project team leader, is eager to show how well the team is keeping to its schedule and budget, and reinforce the confidence the Executive Team has shown in giving him this important assignment. One-by-one, the team members provide their updates. When they come to Roger, he apologizes and says that he wasn’t able to complete his work this week. It seems a co-worker in his department has been sick the past four days, and his boss has reassigned him to help with that work, giving him little time to complete the tasks related to the project, though he has been trying. Ted knows this will set the entire project back a week. He blows his stack.
Mary, project team leader, can’t get the time she needs from the Information Services (IS) person on her team. She contacts Peter, the IS manager, asks that he help her solve this problem, and says, “It would be great if you could come to our next meeting, this Friday at 10. We could then talk about this.” Peter says he thinks that would be a good idea, too. But come Friday, Peter doesn’t show. Mary is frustrated and decides she will just have to “work around” Peter in the future.
These are just three examples of how poorly made requests affect results. Each example reflects the surprise, frustration, or disappointment of the person who made the request. Each example reflects a need to do rework or additional, unexpected work to get the desired results. Each example reflects a situation in which working relationships may be negatively affected by “blaming” someone else for not doing what was expected, when “what was expected” was not very clear to begin with.
This paper presents a powerful structure for making requests and promises that keeps teams in action while reinforcing strong relationships and individual commitment. Through the use of this structure, project managers can realize more consistent results from the requests made to and by team members. The structure teaches team members about different kinds of requests. It creates a shared understanding of the kinds of responses and promises that effective team members make and negotiate. It introduces the idea that making a request and promising to fulfill it becomes a shared accountability between two parties, an accountability that is reinforced by a commitment to a shared goal, but also to the success of one’s partner in the accountability.
The Conversation for Action
“Conversation for Action” is a term used to describe a series of requests and agreements intended to produce action and express commitment (Flores and Winograd 1986). Language matters. The ability to understand and connect with others is based on a shared culture created in part by shared language and terminology. The different languages of the world are part of what define the cultures in which they are spoken. Shared terminology in particular industries facilitates relationship and ease of communication within that industry. Specific phrases and expressions used within a company add to the ability of those employees to understand things that an outsider might not. It follows, then, that language plays a role in creating a culture—in a society, a profession, a company, a relationship, a team.
Language also creates commitment. Linguistic theorists describe how commitment is generated between speaker and listener merely by virtue of taking part in a conversation together (Searle 1969). Because it is highly desirable to generate commitment between project team members, it is useful to examine how language contributes to that objective. Generating commitment and creating an effective team culture are key functions of project managers. So how does “language” help in these functions?
The Model for Effective Requests and Promises
A model for effective requests and promises consists of a number of steps and specific definitions. A “request” is something asked of a specific person, for a specific action or result, within a defined time frame. A “promise” is a commitment to produce a specific action or result in an agreed-upon, defined time frame. The language of an effective request is, “(Name of person), I request that you (do x) by (day and/or time).”
Exhibit 1. A Simple Model for Effective Requests and Promises
The “promiser” can say yes, counter-offer and negotiate, or say no. They can even promise to answer later, “I can’t promise you now, but I commit to letting you know by tomorrow morning at 10:00.” Once the requestor and promiser agree to something, the requestor is also responsible for determining whether the request has been fulfilled, and to communicate that, in some way, to the promiser. Exhibit 1 shows the simplest model of making a request and a promise.
The Three Types of Requests
What could possibly complicate this simple communication process? Plenty. To begin with, there are three types of requests. There are “invitations,” “requests,” and “demands.” By definition, the answer to an invitation can be “yes” or “no,” and there are no consequences. With requests, a “yes” is desired, but there is room for negotiation, and a “no”is accepted if necessary. With demands, “yes” is the only option, and “no” may have significant consequences.
We do not usually make these distinctions when making requests. But being aware of them is important and it is through language that we clarify the distinction. If we are not clear, the person we are making the request of cannot be clear as to whether they are hearing an invitation, request or demand. We are likely to get a result we do not want: results that cause more rework and affect team relationships negatively. Here are two examples: A project manager runs into the team member assigned to their team just today and says, “Bob, I’m so glad you’re going to be able to join our team. It would be great if you could make it to tomorrow’s meeting—I know it’s short notice.” Bob hears that as an invitation, but it is meant as a request. When Bob doesn’t show, the project manager starts wondering if she’s inherited an uncommitted or undependable team member. Alternatively, a manager asks the department assistant to pull all the personnel files for him sometime within the next week. He is pleased when they show up on his desk the next morning. But he is not happy to hear that the assistant delayed a higher priority task, being completed for someone else, in order to fulfill his request. The manager does not realize that the assistant hears every request from him as a demand.
To avoid this confusion, it is essential to be explicit in language. In addition to using the language of an effective request described earlier, we must state clearly whether what is being asked is an “invitation,” a “request,” or a “demand.” We also must be sure that the listener shares these distinctions in types of requests. If they do not, we explain.
If the requestor is not clear in the type of request being made, the request is not being made with integrity. If the type of request is not clear, then the person making the promise cannot answer with integrity. Communicating with integrity—being able to count on what is being said between team members—is essential to an effective team culture and to producing actions from requests.
Additional Challenges to Effective Requests
There are additional challenges in making effective requests. These challenges are:
• Making no request: “I’m hungry” may result in someone providing one with food, but expecting others to “know” what we want merely by the statements we make is an expectation that leads to misunderstandings and poor results.
• Making general requests to a group:“Next week, let’s all try to get to this meeting on time” is a general request to a group, and usually ineffective in altering the behavior of the one or two consistent latecomers, who need a more specific communication. General requests make the speaker appear to be a poor communicator and unwilling or afraid to hold people accountable for their behaviors.
• Making incomplete requests: Failing to agree on a specific time frame is a common mistake. If you want to work on a needed document on Friday, asking, “So you’ll get your report to me on Friday, right?” can result in the document either appearing bright and early Friday morning, or just under the wire at 4:59 p.m.
• Lack of clarity on what will satisfy the request: In some environments, and with some people, it is not acceptable to ask many questions about the request being made. Other times, those involved make assumptions about what the other person means, but do not specifically clarify what the result should look like or include. How can the request, “Give me a detailed summary” mean the same to everyone?
• Working in a culture where “yes” is the only acceptable response: If the personality of the leader or the team culture do not allow for any negotiation on requests or for saying “no,” then requestors will always get “yes” for an answer, but will never know if they can depend on that yes.
• Not communicating or acknowledging the completion of a request: In this model, it is a responsibility of the requestor to communicate whether the request was fulfilled as expected. Too often one is left wondering whether the information someone “had to have from you today!” met their needs. Or if they even got it.
Expanding on “Promise”
To further enhance integrity in team communication and facilitate forward action through requests and promises, it is necessary to add a condition to any “yes” that is given. “Promise” in this model means agreeing to complete the request as stated OR get back to the requestor prior to the deadline, if unable to do so. This is an important distinction in definition because many people will “promise” only the things they know they can do. Their use of the word is restricted and specific, and includes never “breaking” a promise. That is not the kind of promise that is being discussed here.
When the promiser must either fulfill the request or communicate their inability to do so prior to the deadline, their accountability for the request is reinforced. In communicating their inability to complete the request, they give the requestor time to develop an alternative action or solution. The alternative action may or may not involve the promiser, but the likelihood of completing the original task on time is increased regardless. In addition, if communicating complications in performance is part of the original promise, it reinforces a culture that supports integrity and speaking the truth among team members.When we know what the facts are—though the news may be bad—we at least have an accurate picture of reality and can develop more effective responses.
By including the expectation of communicating back, team members are able to make big promises—to take some risks, to stretch themselves and grow. If team members only promise those things for which they know they have plenty of time and plenty of resources, if they only take on the “sure things,” then that team is destined to accomplish only the things that the team members already know how to do. Most teams—and most team members—want more than that.
Requests, Promises, and Commitment
Effective requests are made with clarity, integrity and a commitment to their accomplishment. Effective promises are also made with clarity and integrity, and a willingness to be held accountable. Requests and promises are both made in support of a shared commitment to a larger goal or objective. The shared desire for success of this larger (project) goal supports an important component of this model: when a request is made and a promise received, there is a shared accountability created between two parties for the successful completion of the request. This level of accountability and commitment requires new behaviors in working a request through to completion.
Commitment to our requests requires that we:
• Negotiate: At the Initial stage of the agreement, the Middle of the performance, should the promiser communicate they are having trouble, and at the End, if the result is not what was expected.
• Question a yes given without integrity: if there is any question about the “yes” given by someone, we talk about it with them: “I know you said you could do this, but on the past two projects, you have run over budget. I certainly want you to be successful on this. Tell me your ideas about how you will avoid cost overruns this time.” If we accept a yes that we do not believe, we have abdicated the commitment to that request.
• Acknowledge results: Say thank you or send a message that you received the information. Conversely, have the courage and skill to acknowledge that the results were not what you expected, and negotiate a different outcome. Feedback in support of the individual’s long-term success can strengthen relationships.
• Share accountability: Acknowledge results, help problem-solve (and be sure promiser knows you’re open to that), check back before the due date in support of helping them trouble-shoot and your mutual interest in success, not as “checking up on” them. “I know the specs aren’t due until next week, but I know you want us to stay on schedule as much as I do, so I just wanted to check if you needed anything that we hadn’t considered earlier, in order to meet the deadline.”
• Don’t ignore them: Sometimes we make requests, never hear back from the promiser, and just “let it slide.” Don’t. Help create an environment in which the requests that are made, matter.
Commitment to our promises requires that we:
• Keep them: We do what we said we would.
• Revoke them: By coming back before the deadline to say we won’t be able to keep the promise.
• Don’t accept incomplete requests: If someone makes a request of us that is not specific enough or is missing a clear target date, we communicate that. We help in creating clear requests.
• Say “yes” with integrity: We do not say yes if we cannot say it with every intention of keeping the promise. We voice our concerns as part of a negotiation.
• Are willing to be held accountable: We go back early if we cannot complete it. At the end, we negotiate and re-work as needed to meet the conditions specified by the requestor.
• Don’t ignore them: We do not just “break” promises.
Impact for Project Management
Making requests and promises—negotiating with others to get things done—is one of the most prevalent conversations in project management. When done correctly, this conversation accomplishes a number of things: (1) it encourages clear communication not only about the specific request, but also about working relationships between individuals, (2) it creates a sense of shared accountability and teamwork, request by request, (3) it creates opportunities for problem solving that do not occur when people work in isolation and “report back,” (4) it creates an expectation that each team member stand for the success of every other team member, in working toward the shared goal. These are all critical components of a team’s culture. A culture, in which integrity and communication are honored and expected, is one that can support challenges, change, and high performance.
Exhibit 2. An Expanded Model for Effective Requests and Promises
Another advantage of a disciplined adherence to this model is the impact on relationships outside of the team. Other departments, management, clients, representatives of the public, are stakeholders external to the team. The clarity of effective requests and promises and the integrity in which they are managed with these stakeholders can strengthen their trust and support, which contributes significantly to the success of the team and project.
Implementing the Model
In addition to using the language presented in this model, and assuring that others share the same understanding of the model, there are a few guidelines that will help project managers implement this model effectively. These are:
• In preparing to make a request of someone, assess one’s relationship with that person: If we know and have a positive history with the person, negotiating the agreement is often straightforward. If we do not know the person, or have not had a positive history with them, then our request will be more successful if we can connect the request to achieving goals we share with that person.
• Address possible concerns: The more you consider the concerns of the other person, the more likely they are to be open to yours and to your request. Acknowledge relevant personal, department, or company history. Acknowledge any scarcity of resources, and offer what you can to assist. Disclose your own concerns.
• Pay attention to time and place: We are always interrupting something, even if it’s daydreaming. Check that this is a good time to talk with the other person. If not, arrange a future time.
• Assess ability: Be sure the person has the wherewithal to complete the request they have accepted.
• Be clear on conditions of satisfaction: Be as specific as necessary to communicate what will satisfy the request. As a promiser, be sure these conditions are understood and acceptable. If not, clarify or negotiate.
• Intuition (Listen to your gut): If there is anything about the interaction that “doesn’t feel right,” examine that. If you question a “yes,” talk with the person about it, in a way that reflects your support for their successful performance. If you question the “no” you heard, talk with the person about it. You may need to work on your relationship with that person, or you may need to reengage them in the overall goal.
• Solicit requests: When someone is complaining to you about something, say, “I would like to listen to more of this story, but I don’t have time. Do you have a request?” This can often stop people talking about a problem, and begin to shape their doing something about it. Even if they have no request of you, you may be able to help them see to whom they need to make a request, in order to move beyond the problem.
An Expanded Model
Exhibit 2 shows a model of requests and promises, with key factors that have been discussed in this paper added.
So how can team members or a project manager get started with this model of requests and promises? While it is helpful to understand and integrate the background and ideas presented here, the basic techniques can be initiated tomorrow. Here are some ideas:
• Just do it: Start with yourself, being specific and disciplined in your requests of others. Let them know whether your request is an invitation, a request, or a demand, and explain to them their options in responding.
• Teach your team members: Instruct your team members in request/promise definitions and agree to try it. (Make a request of your team members to do so.)
• Accept being a learner: Know that it will feel awkward, initially. Set a target date, and agree to discuss your progress, successes, and difficulties in learning on that date.
• Have fun learning: Coach each other. Assign someone in meetings to “listen” for complete requests. Put up a sign with the request “script” on it, and make a commitment to follow it. Give yourselves assignments to make three requests a day for the next week. Distinguish invitations from requests from demands. Report back.
• Recognize and document the complete requests: in meeting minutes, memos
• Don’t forget the “by when.”
• Examine your culture: Look for barriers to people speaking the truth (saying yes, no, counter-offering, telling others they can’t keep the promise), and address those barriers. Engage others by supporting their strengths and giving them feedback based on your commitment to their success. Realize you may not engage everyone.
• Be generous: You and others will make mistakes as you learn. You will disappoint yourself and each other. Be generous with each other and your mistakes, but don’t let them go without acknowledgement and a plan to improve.
• Be persistent: Keep practicing, but also be persistent in getting what you need from your requests. Often we give up too soon.
Teams that begin this practice quickly realize richer, more effective communication and actions. Every communication will not be in this format. But when someone begins a sentence with, “I request that …” people begin to recognize that they are listening differently. When someone makes a “sloppy” request, the listeners will ask the questions that add the necessary rigor and missing clarity. The language becomes part of the team culture.
This paper has presented a powerful yet simple model for making effective requests and promises. Teams that implement this model and its language successfully will find that they are spending less time talking about what happened and more time about getting the next thing to happen. Effective requests and promises reinforce action, accountability for one’s own and each other’s performance, commitment to the success of one’s teammates and successful behaviors in pursuit of shared goals.
Carman, Dana (for The Clarion Group) and Garr, Allison. 1996. Transformational Leadership Program Training.
Flores, Fernando, and Winograd, Terry. 1997. Understanding Computers and Cognition. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Searle, John R. 1969. Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA