The Commitment Molecule: A New View on Collaboration
This post originally appears on the blog of Alynd, a client of mine dedicated to adding accountability, clarity and honesty to collaboration.
We all know that we’re smarter together than we’re alone, and that we can accomplish more as a team, but how does that really work? Certainly it’s about increasing the capacity and networking our capabilities, but there is something more fundamental underlying successful collaboration. The strength of our relationships with each other, how well we complement (and often compliment) each other and our ability to execute in alignment with each other around a common purpose is the way great teams create the greatest value.
Ultimately, successful collaboration is fueled by the commitments we make to our collaborators. The expectations we set, based on what we communicate and what we do. Those commitments are what align our interests, illuminate our purpose, lend clarity when determining what to work on next and how to exceed expectations. They give us a way to fairly evaluate our work and establish a culture of accountability.
But what gives a commitment its weight?
Think of a well-designed commitment as a molecule, made up of interconnected atoms representing four key elements.
Much is made of transparency, but two people can experience (hear, read, see, etc.) the exact same thing and interpret it completely differently based on their unique perspectives. (This is even true of color and taste.)
For example, if I asked you to create a biweekly email campaign, how frequently would you send out the emails? Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines “biweekly”:
- occurring twice a week
- occurring every two weeks
Unclear language is the culprit in the above example, but each dimension of a collaboration risks sowing confusion and conflict if clarity is not established.
Clarity, then, is when every single collaborator has the same understanding of the key elements of a project. This includes overall goals, roles, priorities, contingencies—and one’s personal contribution to each.
Timely communication is another critical dimension to clarity. Having yesterday’s information is no good if someone else on your team has today’s.
Here’s an easy way to think of the difference between transparency and clarity: Transparency is when you and the person next you look into the same box and see the same things inside. Clarity is when each of you has the same understanding of what those things are.
Being honest about commitments means being realistic and open about abilities, resources and timelines. It’s every single teammate’s responsibility to speak up when he or she thinks a commitment is unrealistic or at risk, or to ask for help to ensure delivery on a commitment.
This requires a degree of vulnerability that is uncomfortable to many, but it’s extremely important that everyone admits what they can and can’t do, and what they do and do not know. That willingness to be vulnerable doesn’t make sense when posturing and politicking is rewarded over performance, so it needs to be consistently encouraged and reinforced.
Honesty also means asking for and doling out constructive, direct feedback on what didn’t go right as much as what was done exceptionally well. The team leader has a responsibility to create an environment in which this can be done without fearing reprisal. It starts with requesting feedback about the team leader’s own performance and accepting it graciously, then improving based on the feedback given. If the team sees that the leader is not impervious to criticism—rather, that he or she invites it—creating an honest dialogue between teammates is much easier.
Every commitment should have a single owner—a person who is ultimately responsible for honoring it. Commitment owners need to acknowledge receipt of a request for the commitment, seek out clarity and request changes before any commitment is made. This prevents individuals from escaping responsibility through a cloud of unclear communications and lax standards.
When we agree to a commitment—when it is an informed dialogue, not a barked order—we tend to perform better than if a commitment has been simply thrust upon us. This is the difference between a true commitment owner and a mere order taker.
Another aspect of ownership is autonomy. Whether you know it from Voltaire or Spiderman, you’re familiar with the cliché:
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
On high-performance teams, the inverse is also true:
With great responsibility (ownership) comes great power (autonomy).
Commitment owners should have the freedom and the resources to make their own decisions in pursuit of a commitment—how to use their time, which tools to use, whom to work with and consult, etc.
Granting this autonomy, and doing so explicitly and proactively, sends two unmistakable signals:
- I value honored commitments far more than the specifics of how they came to be.
- I respect and trust you enough to make your own calls in pursuit of a commitment.
If you are unsure as to whether or not a new teammate will thrive autonomously, start with small freedoms that carry little risk. The degree of autonomy an individual has will grow as commitments are honored; it will inevitably be decreased if they are not. Or it will be contextually set based on different areas of activity and skill.
Ultimately, autonomy for commitment owners means peace of mind for team leaders.
In the world outside of business, most of the actions we take (or fail to take) have clear and recognizably fair consequences. Too many overdue bills and your credit score will be adversely affected. Make an unkind remark to your significant other and you’re sleeping on the couch tonight. Make a reservation at a hot restaurant far enough in advance, and you will get a stellar table.
But within the world of business, the relationship between our commitments and the consequences is not explicitly obvious to each collaborator. Too often, the individuals that honor or fail to honor a commitment are not the ones that will reap the rewards or suffer the fallout. Positive consequences are diluted to the extent that they hardly motivate passionate contributions or yield optimal outcomes. Rewards are given to those most adept at Machiavellian maneuvering and repercussions are avoided by deftly blaming and shaming.
From concept to execution, consequences relative to stated commitments should be discussed openly and unambiguously. Everyone should understand that their advancement and reward is contingent on honoring commitments above all else. Commitments to themselves, to their colleagues and to their company. Individual consequences should be discussed candidly between team leader and teammate, and connected to team consequences to establish the interdependence of the commitment and reward structures.
In this model, the teammate that delivers acceptable work against all of their commitments should unlock more positive consequences than the teammate that delivers excellent work against most, but not all of, his or her commitments.
Recognition is a powerful form of a positive consequence. A Mood Tracker study revealed that recognition correlates to employee satisfaction, motivates better performance, and is the foundation for motivation. And joint research from Badgeville and Make Their Day found that recognition is more of a motivation than monetary rewards, and that praise from management is incredibly motivational. Maybe it’s time to remove those gift cards from your budget and invest more time in meaningful praise. Positive and negative consequences should be most acute and apparent for commitment owners, as they are accountable for the success or failure of the particular project component. Team leaders that take too much credit for the performance of their team are essentially distorting ownership. It’s pretty simple: commitment owners should be recognized for delivering on a commitment, especially when team leaders are communicating with external individuals and teams.
The molecular bond is trust
Trust is the invisible energy that binds clarity, consequences, honesty and ownership into a functioning commitment molecule. Trust is what ultimately creates the bonds between collaborators and determines the strength of their performance today and into the future. There’s no way to synthesize the kind of trust I’m talking about, and more than any other element in the commitment molecule, it must be earned. Trust keeps your team in productive alignment. It’s the difference between cockiness and confidence. It’s the difference between comfort and confusion. A team that trusts each other works harder and smarter because of that bond, and in time, earns the trust of others. Trust is why your team gets the call when the project has to be done right the first time.
Honor your commitments, earn your reputation
Do you think your work life would be happier and less stressful if everyone honored their commitments to you? If people did what they said they were gong to do when they said they were going to do it? Or if they at least communicated changes and questions as they arose instead of at the last minute? This is what we are striving for with Alynd, to create alignment amongst collaborators that makes them happier, builds trust and improves business outcomes.
To literally get people on the same page by looking at collaboration through the contextual lens of the commitments we make to each other. To focus on the people with whom we work and the promises we make to each other, not the projects and objects. To develop the relationships with our teammates as much as we develop ourselves.
What are your thoughts about the importance of commitments in collaboration?