Posted by: draknor | September 19, 2011


I woke up this morning and checked my email, only to find a broken commitment.  About a month ago I had taken some photos for my girlfriend and her coworkers at a great women-only triathlon, and one of the women had asked me for the high-resolution copies of a couple of the photos for her to print-out.  And you know what? I completely forgot to send them to her!

So today she emails me with a gentle reminder.  Now, she’s a wonderful & kind person and her email had no negative emotion at all, but I had this sinking feeling in my heart because it meant that I had made a commitment, and I had broken it.  And it made me think about my process — do I really have a good process?  When I tell someone I’ll do something, how do I ensure that I actually get it done?

This was something that was really emphasized at my former employer, especially in my role as a technical support rep.  Customer happiness is all about good communication, setting appropriate expectations, and delivering on my commitments & promises.  But the same principle applies to everyone in my life, not just customers.  If I tell someone I’ll do something, I am making a commitment to them.  And there are only two possible outcomes from that:

  1. I do it on time. (+1 to reputation)
  2. I don’t. (-n to reputation)
It really doesn’t get any simpler than that.
And I need to remember the “on time” clause of outcome 1. Every commitment has a deadline. Repeat that with me – every commitment has a deadline!  If I don’t explicitly set one, then both me & the other person are implicitly setting a deadline — and we may have completely different ideas for what that deadline should be.
Now in this case, we probably both had a deadline idea of “a couple of days”.  I’d guess most personal, friendly commitments are like that — “sometime within the next few days”.  But I didn’t get it done within a couple of days. In fact, I forgot about it completely! In my opinion, there’s a hierarchy (from least-bad to worst) in the ways to not do it:
  1. Recognize you won’t get it on time, and renegotiate the commitment or the deadline, before the deadline (-1 to reputation)
  2. Do a half-assed job of it on the deadline (-3 to reputation)
  3. Don’t get it done on time, and renegotiate the commitment or the deadline, after the deadline (-5 to reputation)
  4. Don’t get it done on time, and don’t renegotiate — eg forget about it (-20 to reputation)
(Your mileage may vary — these are just the way I rank them).  Now since this was a friend, and it was just a personal task with no real urgency, the consequences were not too severe.  But its still real — the next time she asks me to do something, she would remember this incident and give her that little doubt & uncertainty about if she can really trust me to get it done.  That’s not the reputation I want to have.
There’s no substitute for following through on my commitments, on time. But if I do screw up, I challenge myself to own up to my mistake — that’s the hard part. For me, the easy part is then trying to go above & beyond the original commitment, as a way to make amends for screwing up. That was something I got right at my last job.
In the tech support role I had, we would often do special development for customers. And like all development, anything we programmed had to go through our QA process to ensure it worked as intended before we could release it (that was the goal, anyway…).  At the time I was there, the QA staff were getting pretty burned out, and part of the reason was the tech staff was rushing special development and not giving QA enough time to do their testing (this should sound familiar to pretty much any software development company!).  The managers started digging into some metrics and lo & behold, I was the top offender for not getting my development into QA on the agreed upon deadlines.  (oops!)
Except this baffled the QA manager, because he had never heard any complaints from his QA staff about me!  He called me into his office to chat.  And the reason, I told him, that no one ever complained about me is because when I was late, I would bend over backwards to make QA’s job as easy as possible — writing very detailed test plans, offering to help setup test cases, and being in constant communication with them during the QA process.  That way they knew, that I knew, that I screwed up and that I would do my best to make amends.  It doesn’t say much for my project prioritization skills, but it speaks loads about my ability to work with others and get the job done, that I was able to fly under the radar with these practices for years without complaint.  It also helped that I often worked with rockstar QA’ers who knew what they were doing and were genuinely nice, but that alone wouldn’t have been enough to get away with some of the stuff that I did!
So, back to my broken commitment this morning.  I immediately did two things — I emailed my friend back and told her I would send the photos to her by end-of-day.  Then I started to think of how I could go above & beyond, to try & rebuild some of that reputation I had just lost.  Since I’m out of town, I couldn’t print them off myself & deliver them to her (although that thought crossed my mind), but what I could do is make the whole album available to her, just in case there were any other images she decided to wanted.  And then before I even got out of bed, I setup a quick online album on Dropbox with just the photos she wanted (so she could easily get just those photos), and a second album with all of the photos.  And then sent her a link as soon as Dropbox started sync’ing, saying that by 2pm the photos she wanted would be available at this link, and at this other link was the whole album in hi-res in case she wanted any others.
Bam. Mission accomplished, and I hadn’t even gotten up yet.
Now what do you think her perception of me will be?  Not only that, but it also made me feel good to get that task done first thing, and not have it looming over my head for the rest of the day.  My next challenge will be to learn from this experience, and not forget about commitments like that.  I’ve started using Remember The Milk (and due dates) to try & prevent that. I’ll have to report back in the future on how that’s working for me.