!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Donald Sull Makes the Case for Management by Commitment

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Donald Sull Makes the Case for Management by Commitment

Donald Sull, who teaches management at the London Business School, has long been a proponent of what he calls management by commitment.

As Sull explains in a brief interview posted at BNET.com on March 4, management by commitment involves looking "at an organization as a network of overlapping, continually evolving promises that people make to each other to get things done."1

Sull contrasts management by commitment to two alternatives:
  • Use of hierarchical power

    "This tends to create silos: the hierarchy is very up and down and doesn't work well for work that requires cooperation across different units or functions. It's pretty slow as well; it takes a long time for information to get up the structure and for orders to find their way down."

  • Management by standardized processes

    "This is hugely helpful — it allows you to squeeze out excess resources and continuously improve on what you do. But here we also have limitations, probably the biggest one being that standardization gets in the way of innovation."
For situations that do not lend themselves to standardization, Sull argues that management by commitment allows needed flexibility. Management by commitment also has a natural place in situations in which you need cooperation from someone over whom you have no authority.

Based on research he and his colleague Charles Spinosa have done, Sull cites five characteristics of effective management by commitment:
  • The commitments are public and they are tracked publicly.

  • The commitments are active, as opposed to being casual or pro forma.

  • The commitments are voluntary. The person from whom a commitment is sought can make a counteroffer, or even say no if what's being requested is something the individual really isn't able to take on.

  • The commitments are explicit, i.e., it is clear which individuals are committing to what objectives and tasks.

  • The commitments are motivating. People need to care about what they are being asked to do, so that they are willing to carry on when inevitable obstacles crop up. This requires clarifying the importance of, and the rationale for, the actions people are signing up for.
Note: In a longer interview published in 2007 that is well worth reading, Sull explains in more detail how management by commitment helps with strategy execution.

1 A brief follow-up BNET.com interview with Sull, citing specific examples of use of management by commitment, is here.


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