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This article is the final of three posts, where I look at recovering promises that are at risk, or already broken. I have some simple goals for this post: First, that you’ll pick up valuable pointers that will help you spot a broken or at-risk promise, faster than before. Second, you’ll decide to try out a new practice that I’ve found helps me recover promises that are at risk.

Quick recap on my first two blog posts

In my first post, I pointed out that a project is more powerfully seen as a fluid and complex network of promises between people who care. Seen from this perspective, it becomes clear that the failures project leaders cope with every day – faulty work packages, schedule slippages, cost overruns, unresponsiveness to contingencies, bored or disengaged employees, and so on - lie in broken or badly made promises. In my second post, I talked about the critical part great interpersonal relationships play in getting and managing your team’s promises.

What does a bad promise look like, before it goes bad?

I think most of us can spot a bad promise when it's already on its way to failing. For example we listen to our managers reporting hopefully, but with a large number of caveats, and we are alarmed. Or, we see a promise drifting with dates being reset and no coherent actions from the team to get back on track: the alarm goes off again.

How do you spot a poor promise before it's clearly failing?

In 2004, Hal Malcomber, one of the founders of the Lean Construction movement, introduced VISION’s commitment-loop protocol into the Last Planner System to strengthen the network of promises, the Last Planner System relies on for its success. In VISION, we use Commitment-based Management™ and the commitment-loop to set up promises well in the first place, and get early warning when a promise is at risk of failing.

VISION’s commitment- loop is based on a simple concept: all reliable promise conversations follow a four-stage life cycle.

If any one stage is skipped or done poorly, then the promise is likely to fail.

Though very simple conceptually, the commitment loop is sophisticated enough to handle the complex networks of promises common in large construction projects.

Early-Warning Alerts: Using the commitment-loop as a lens, I’ve seen that unreliable promises have one or more of the following early-warning behaviour alerts in common:

  • No real listening to each other during PREPARATION resulting in poorly appreciated requests.
  • Little or no collaboration during NEGOTIATION when plans are drawn up but nobody promises the outcomes.
  • No frank communication during PERFORMANCE when problems emerge, as they inevitably do and work is delivered late with little appreciation for the consequences.
  • No feedback, learning, or celebration during ACKNOWLEDGMENT, damaging trust and undermining confidence in the next round of promises.

When the early warning alerts go off, what can you do to recover the promise?

In my earlier blog post, I pointed out that experienced managers often have a strong feeling in their gut - a mood - that a particular promise is failing. For example, the manager might already be resigned to being told soon that a delivery is going late, or reconciled but resentful because they expect to step in to look after a missed completion date, or because of poor quality. I find when I combine my mood alert with pointers from the commitment loop, I can make good assessments about the reliability of the promise and the person making the promise.

How to make it worse.

If you keep what you truly think about the promise to yourself and don’t talk to your colleague about the promise then nothing will change. Worse, if you talk only to other colleagues about the failure you anticipate - perhaps to put a Plan B in place - then you add wasted effort (the ‘Plan B’) on top of a deteriorating relationship.

How to make it better.

In VISION, we strongly believe that the best, fastest way to recover a failing promise is immediately to speak to your colleague frankly about the assessments you hold about their promise and why you hold those assessments. We also ask that you do this conversation in a way that strengthens the relationship by letting your colleague see what it is that matters to you. Done well this conversation opens up an opportunity to hammer out a new promise together that you can trust.

In the past I’ve found these conversations tough to handle and always brought a good coach with me to facilitate a very simple structure we use in the conversation. With the coach's support the structure makes it far easier to get the tough conversation going.

Below is the simple structure for practising frank conversations; in VISION we call the practice assessment sharing. If you can remember learning to ride a bike, think of this simple structure as the ‘stabilisers’ that got you going. Once you are comfortable sharing frank assessments, you can get rid of the ‘stabilisers’.

Sharing Assessments - The Frank Speaking Conversation Structure

  1. You - Get permission: “I’d like to share an assessment with you about X. Is that Ok?”
    • You - Respect a ‘no’, and rely on the coach to help resolve the impasse.
    • You - Express gratitude for a ‘yes’: For example, “Thank you for allowing me to say what’s on my mind.”
  2. You - Provide the assessment: Provide a short observation that shows what you care about and then provide the assessment. For example “You slipped the date twice in the past three weeks, which puts the whole programme at risk. I don’t believe the new date you’ve given me is any better than the earlier ones.”
  3. Your Colleague - Accept the assessment at face value (don’t argue or defend), express gratitude and say what you will do: For example, “Thank you for your sincerity. I can see why you would say that. I will reflect on what you’ve said, and come back to you by X time, today. Is that Ok?”
  4. You - Express appreciation: For example, “I appreciate the conversation and look forward to talking to you later today.”

Clearly, assessments can be either negative or positive. In the context of my blog post the assessment is negative. However, at VISION our coaches very strongly recommend that you always share both a negative and a positive assessment (preferably the negative one first) and you reciprocate, by asking for a negative and a positive assessment from your colleague in the same conversation.

That concludes this short series of blog posts introducing ‘Lean Construction - Making Good Promises”. If you would like some more material on any aspects of my blog posts, or would like to discuss the topic some more, drop me an email at

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Peter Luff is a Director at VISION Consulting and for the past 15 years has been leading large transformation programmes for FTSE100 companies using VISION's Commitment-based Management (CbM) approach. The programmes produce dramatic results because fundamentally this approach empowers people, reinvigorates them and connects them with their customers at a human level. Peter has spent the last 10 years developing the application of Lean Construction and Commitment-based management.