Pinky promise your way to results

Updated: Jun 11, 2019

I believe there is one thing that systematically guarantees results, and yet hardly anyone ever does it.

You simply have to follow through on the things you say you’ll do. Simple, but not easy. I was once working on a project and had the idea that instead of doing it all myself I could invite 6 other people to voluntarily help me and it would take a fraction of the time. Together we took the workload and divided it into 7 equal parts – this was going to be so easy!

I can’t say that I micro-managed it, so on reflection it’s no great surprise to me that as I checked in with each participant with the deadline looming, most people had not done what they had willingly volunteered to do. We were nowhere near achieving our target. I was utterly perplexed by this. After all, we were all grown-ups so how come no one completed what they said they would?

When I reflected on my career, I realised that I had made a consultancy business out of one simple quality: just doing what I said I would do.

I glided between industries with great ease being awarded contracts to achieve projects I had no idea how to do, for the sole reason that I always followed through. I contracted to a manufacturing company who asked me to write a bid to win a defence contract worth 73 million British pounds – I knew nothing about manufacturing, defence, or bid-writing! My only relevant qualification was that if I said I’d do it, then I would.

By the way, let’s be clear on something – I’m no saint. As committed as I am to follow through on my word in my professional life, I confess that it’s an entirely different matter when it comes to personal commitments like going to the gym. In the past I have been the first to roll on the things I said I would do. Once I realised that even high performers let things slide, I became obsessed with finding out

Why we say ‘yes’ when really we mean ‘no’, why we commit to do things and experience ourselves as failures when we don’t follow through.

So, I went back to my team and I asked them individually: what was missing in me as a leader that had you fail to follow through on your commitment? Granted, it could be a difficult and uncomfortable conversation, but if you have the guts to ask it you will find out a lot about yourself, about your team, and most of all about human nature.

Here is the crux of what I learnt:

People told me that when they said yes, they were keen to help but had not really thought through what that meant for them. In their simple agreement indicated by the act of saying yes, they hadn’t really made an impactful commitment.

In short, human beings are agreeable. That sounds like a good thing, but it really isn’t. Agreeable means “happy to go along with”, and it is entirely the enemy of commitment. Despite sharing the same linguistic roots, “being agreeable” could not be further from “Agreement” – the first one is all about going with the flow whereas the second suggests something that is legally binding.

When your team tells you that they’re going to complete on a task, however large or small, wouldn’t it be awesome to have the supreme confidence that their yes truly meant a resounding YES!

We can learn a lot from our teenagers in this regard. When I ask my teenage daughter to do something that she doesn’t want to do (such as cleaning her room), I can expect one of two responses:

  • An agreeable and reasonably enthusiastic “yeah, yeah” with a subtle hint of a brush-off

  • Or a cast-iron pinky promise

There really isn’t anything in between. Yes or no, black or white.

Pinky promise is not usually the language we use in business, but why not?

Oh, and if your personal goals include finally getting that gym body, then that’s gonna take a series of pinky promises too ;-)

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