18. Why Projections are Better than Promises

This page is part of the Holacracy Habits series.

In most organizations, it's important to hit deadlines. After all, time waits for no one. Customers aren't happy when their orders show up a year late, and there's no sense in arriving late to a meeting that happened yesterday.

So, we can only work with the time we have. And, like a dance, we have to coordinate our moves with others. We not only need to know what each other are doing, we also need to know when it's going to happen. Typically, we get this transparency by giving each other time commitments. Things like, “Can you get that to me by next week?” or, “Yeah, I'll finish that by Friday,” probably don't sound strange. We say them all the time. Promising to hit a deadline means the other person doesn't need to worry because we've taken full responsibility. If I tell you I'll get it done by Friday, don't keep asking me about it. Just trust me.

But there's a problem with this whole approach. Sure, we gain some clarity (i.e. we know when something might be completed), but we also lose some. And this is especially important to understand as you experiment with the habit, requesting work from other roles.

Let's look at an example .Say you request a project from Mary in her Sales Analytics role, like, “Sales report completed.” Now, you and Mary are friends and you know she's busy, but you must have the report for a client meeting next Wednesday.

You (after you request the project): When will you finish it?

Mary (thinks for a second): By next Tuesday.

You (satisfied): Great, I have an important client meeting the day after, so Tuesday is perfect.

But, when Mary said she'd finish the project by next Tuesday, she implicitly agreed to prioritize this project above others. And she did it in a split second. Did she consciously weigh this project against all of her different projects? Can she possibly know what other issues or opportunities may come her way before next Tuesday? Of course not.

Her hasty commitment came with unconscious prioritization. Anything new coming in tomorrow will have to take a backseat to the stuff she accepted today. Or worse, she'll have to drop the commitment and face the wrath of being labeled “unreliable”.

So, on the surface, it may look like Mary was adaptively responding to current reality, but she can't know the future, so making a hasty commitment now means any future stuff will have to take a backseat.

Counterintuitively, Mary is saying the most recent stuff to enter her world is the least important.

But there's more. This whole charade creates problems for you too. Mostly, it gives you a false sense of security. You'll likely have no idea something went wrong until it's too late. So, what happens if she misses the deadline and ruins your meeting? You are furious. Mary is unfairly attacked. And you probably lost the client.

You may think that “trusting” Mary means you don't need to check in with her progress, but it was your client meeting, not hers. You were the one who needed the sales report on Tuesday. Unconsciously, you made Mary responsible for the success of your client meeting. That way, if things go wrong, you have someone to blame.

In day-to-day life, we all do this. Not because we are jerks, but because in the moment it actually feels like the right thing to do.

Mary accepts the arrangement for similar reasons. The upside is she gets to feel helpful and reliable. And if something unexpected happens and she can't make the deadline, she can blame you for having unrealistic expectations.

So, it's a good strategy for the parts of ourselves that fear responsibility, but not for the parts that truly serve the organization, or the parts that want us to learn and grow.

But, if promising to hit deadlines creates problem, what do you do instead?

The solution is actually embarrassingly simple:

When you request a project or next action, ask for a projection not a promise.

By definition, “a projection is not a binding commitment. And unless governance says otherwise, you have no duty to track the projection, manage your work to achieve it, or follow-up with the recipient if something changes.”

If you asked Mary for a projection and she said, “By next Tuesday,” you'd likely stay much more involved. There is a razor-thin buffer before your client meeting. You might even ask for an update every few days.

You could also ask, “Anything else in your way that I could help you with?” If you can't do the project yourself, maybe you could take something else off Mary's plate to free her up. Or ask about her current priorities.

If you want the sales report project to be a higher priority, ask the Circle Lead. Circle Leads have an accountability for defining the priorities of the circle.

Could Mary get annoyed at you for all the extra attention? Sure, she could. But at worst, it's a little annoying in the moment. More likely, she'll appreciate teammates who speak up for their own needs and spare her from constantly having to guess them.

Just because others listened to you express your needs or concerns doesn't mean they've agreed to something. Maybe they were just listening. The point is, request work from others, but don’t lose touch with your tensions. If needed, stay involved. Help others help you.