Defining commitments


Organizational commitments take time to develop, and require the concurrent unfolding of what must be done, and who will do it. This understanding must be established before those who will be responsible for activities can personally accept their role in performing the work, accept ownership of producing what needs to be produced,  and agree to support both the individual and collective responsibilities necessary for success. For this acceptance to occur, the work to be performed will need to be actionable within the expected period of performance, and the responsible parties must personally invest their discretionary energy in pursuing the overall outcomes, and respond to discoveries along the way. Sometimes this just requires a step of faith, and at other times, it requires a leap.

Even once this acceptance has been demonstrated within the top levels of an organization's hierarchy, the next level of commitment must be secured at the performing team level itself, by assuring that the team's collective efforts are focused towards shared vision of the future state being pursued. The final level of commitment will still need to be demonstrated as unforeseen difficulties arise, and team members are tested in their willingness to make personal sacrifices in order to support one another, and ensure that the team's commitments can actually be followed through in the face of hardships and impediments.

Think of a baseball team which has its defensive team on the field. Before the pitch, the game is largely a battle between an individual pitcher and an individual batter, but  Before the pitch, the individual players can move around within their areas of responsibility, and individuals be even ending up switching assignments once a time-out is called. But once an offensive player is on base, and a ball is put into play, the defensive plays and positioning of the defensive unit must be ​everyone responds appropriately to the type, speed, and direction of the hit. There can be no delay, or confusion, about who has the responsibility for catching the ball, for covering bases, or for backing up throws, because such slips will likely provide the offensive team with an opening to advance runners, and perhaps even score. If the bases are loaded, and there is a foul ball along the fence line, which of the defensive players will dive or pull up?

For these kinds of situations - in which a particular emerging situation must be diagnosed and addressed within a fixed timeframe - everyone needs to know:

  • What the rules are
  • What the overall strategy is for each play in the playbook
  • Who is responsible for covering each base under typical and emergent conditions, and what players are to do in that role
  • How and when to make effective hand-offs across roles
  • How to recognize holes that occur in covering the territory and close those gaps
  • How to call off potential mis-allocation of resources
  • When to call a timeout if a critical mistake is about to be made

Instead of a baseball team, let's instead consider an engineering development endeavor. For projects of even moderate complexity, integration is fundamentally hard. The integration activities are often begun too late to re-plan functionality, consider alternative partnering, or re-evaluate design alternatives; too much work has already been set in motion, and much rework will be necessary when a change in direction must be made. It is important to recognize that in this environment, there will concurrently be two mindsets - that of the 'component' producers, and that of the 'integration' evaluators. These two sets of activities will often be competing for resources, time, and attention, and may see the world differently. It is essential that these respective frames of reference are reconciled, so that the quality necessary for effective integration can be achieved by the component producers, and so that the evaluation results produced by the integrators can be effectively communicated and fed back into the component production process. It is equally important that accurate and meaningful data is made available and is actually being used for decision-making.

As leaders contemplate the overall emerging situation as integration progresses, they tend to look at the prior efforts as water under the bridge, and maintain high hopes that an end is in sight. This hope motivates them to apply pressure to focus and finish required activities, so they can begin moving members off the team and onto some other project. This behavior may be driven by cost constraints, yet may be ignorant of the efforts required to triage the backlog of issues (as if these shrink, rather than grow, on their own). They are right about one thing: integration should be a time to merge, to stabilize, and to evaluate, not to be exploring, experimenting, or path finding.

For this reason, before integration begins, there must be clear roles, responsibilities, and authority for the required integration activities, so they will align the information flows, and oversee integration progress, risk mitigation, and issue resolution, so the products and their underlying components can stabilize and be properly evaluated for fitness and robustness.

Who will be accountable for the ultimate success or failure of this integration?  Who will have the authority to take action, redirect resources, and oversee that the necessary work is performed to standards? Who will broker the necessary agreements, compromises, and commitments? Who will make the hard choices between competing priorities, among ambiguous alternatives, and across already over-committed work units? Who will ensure that appropriate incentives, measurements, and accountability systems will be in place to properly motivate the individuals and teams responsible for executing the work? 

While there is often a seemingly endless set of problems to solve during this period, the ability of the integration team members to tackle such problems will be highly dependent upon the preparations which have been previously laid into place. Integration is all about creating an environment for learning. Is the information that is being collected timely and accurate? Are the critical flows to communicate that information efficient and effective? Does everyone know who is to do what, and to what standards their work is held to? Are the behaviors proper and consistent? Someone needs to be able to anticipate, to synthesize into decisions, and have the authority to act.

Otherwise, teams may find themselves well into integration, and behind by a lot of runs, with not enough innings left to pull out a win.