Project Practitioners > The Difference Between Deadlines and Commitments

The Difference Between Deadlines and Commitments

By DeAnna Burghart

Not quite two years ago, in the final stages of our first home purchase, with papers and deadlines and logistics and mindbogglingly large monetary transactions swirling around us, my 4-year-old nephew came for an extended visit. There were compelling reasons, and under the circumstances we were happy to lend a hand. The trouble, of course, is that with so many big things staring one down, the little things can easily slip, and sometimes it's the little things that are most crucial. So when my husband came back from yet another trip to the storage unit, I pleaded with him to help me remember a drop-dead deadline. "I have to get to the store tonight and get a booster seat for the car," I told him. "You can't let me forget this. It has to happen. It's absolutely mandatory, and I can't be allowed to slip on it." (Notice the shifting of responsibility there?)

"I can make that happen if you really want me to," he said blandly.

"Yes, please. Do what you have to do. Remind me that I said this is non-negotiable. Remind me that I won't have another opportunity. I'm coming home from the airport tomorrow and I absolutely have to have a booster in the car when I leave for the airport in the morning."

He got up mid-sentence and walked out of the den and into the hallway. As soon as I paused for breath, he called into the living room, "Hey, Nick! Mom just promised that she's going to buy you a pack of Pokemon cards tonight, but you have to remind her. Make sure she doesn't forget. As soon as she's done with the paperwork, you have to remind her that she promised to go buy you some Pokemon cards and she doesn't want to forget about it."

I dissolved into laughter, because he was absolutely right; there was simply no chance that I wouldn't get to the store. I'd be hounded within an inch of my life, and end up going out of sheer desperation, just to make it stop. In my husband's words, "when you have an agent of action as persistent as Nick and an incentive as strong as new Pokemon cards, you're crazy not to use them." (Yes, he really did phrase it that way. That's what working with and as project managers does to our brains.) And just like that, my problem—which I'd tried to make his problem—was fully mine again. This time, I completely owned it.

When I relayed the story to a colleague, he pointed out that "commitment, not scheduling, is what gets things done, and it's the personal commitments that really sink in." (Thanks, Geof.) What makes our son such a valuable "agent of change," of course, is that I truly care about his expectations. Because of that, I wasn't willing to break that earnest commitment, even if it was made without my prior endorsement. It was a safe gamble for my self-appointed project manager—it was a relatively minor commitment, tied to a relatively major requirement, and easily done in tandem with my own goal. (Had he promised instead that I would organize an impromptu trip to Disneyland, I would have backed out.) The big goal was far more important to me, but the smaller commitment had a much greater emotional price attached. I might have let that car seat slip until the very last minute, but there was no way I would ever risk a crushed promise to a first-grader. A new stakeholder was introduced just like that, and boy did that stakeholder know how to get results!

I pulled a lot of lessons out of that little experience:

  • When confronted with a swarming frenzy of goals and limited time to do them, we will do our best if we focus on the expectations we truly value: the customer we cannot bear to disappoint, the boss whose good opinion we treasure, the co-worker we'll need next week who is relying on us today. Meeting those expectations matters far more (and often demands higher standards) than merely meeting the deadlines.
  • Make it personal. If you know you need to get something done, make that promise as public and unavoidable as possible, but make it on a human, personal level—I will not disappoint you. (This also makes it a lot more likely that we will make rational, achievable promises.)
  • Look for opportunities to combine small, emotionally valuable goals with larger, more pressing versions. Find your agent of change and your incentive, and capitalize on them.

It's the difference between scheduling a deadline and making a commitment.

Next week, I'll share an incredibly powerful tool I've discovered for making myself make those commitments: my Delete key. (Notice the time-bound commitment there? If I don't get it done, everyone will know!)

Related resources

Making commitments and then following through is a trait we all need to keep posted on the mirror as a reminder of its importance. Alfonso Bucero shares his view in The power of Commitment where he elaborates on "Leaders who inspire commitment to their people contribute directly to project success." How we gain commitment from others depends upon our influence skills, the degree of trust we've established and communication skills. Geof Lory provide some perspective on the words we choose in establishing commitment from team members in his article A Few Closing Words.

Relative to our own follow-through on commitments it helps to know where our own time is spent to help focus on what critical and to tie together priorities, goals and actions. Read the answer to How can I get control over my time? to help you with finding the time sinks and use the Priorities, Goals, and Actions Alignment Worksheet template to develop your own personal plan.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Excellent story DeAnna. Not only should your advice assist us directly, it can be applied to our teams.

Creating an emotional connection with our team can strengthen their overall commitment and concern.

This is by far, the most succinct and valuable change management tip I have read. We can all use positive pointers for on how to "move people" to change when leading any project. It is key that we learn how to recognize what truly motivates our team. Then we can go from a team motivated by "compliance" and meeting deadlines to a truly motivated, self directed and high performance team.

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