When we discover we’re overcommitted, it’s ideal to renegotiate. But sometimes renegotiating would cause financial or reputational risk that’s not worth the downside. It may be worth sacrificing something else to meet that commitment, but if so, do that deliberately and mindfully.
There are times when it doesn’t feel possible to break or renegotiate a commitment, but you also can’t see how to deliver on it. You feel stuck. So what do you do then?
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Welcome to the Humanizing Work Show.
In Episode 54, “The Healthy Way to do Commitments and Accountability,” (link) we shared the characteristics of commitments that have integrity, and how to break those commitments with integrity. As we were talking with a client this week, we realized that there are times when it doesn’t feel possible to break or renegotiate a commitment, but you also can’t see how to deliver on it. You feel stuck. So what do you do then? Was Episode 54 just a naive, ineffectively idealistic bit of advice? In this episode, we’ll share what to do about those commitments that you “just can’t break.” But first…
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One of the elegant things about a framework like Scrum is that it gives some nice structure to help avoid overcommitment, and to respond to it when we realize we’re there. Doing things as a team in short iterations, we learn over time how much we can usually get done. With a single backlog to work from, we’re not bombarded with multiple demand sources blowing up that predictability. And, if we discover, mid-sprint, as we’re doing the work that there’s something unusual about this thing that we’re working on, and now we’re overcommitted, Scrum gives us three nice options for how to renegotiate: Slice the work and keep the most valuable part, let it expand (if it’s still the most important thing) and drop something that’s lower priority, or decide that it’s no longer worth doing at the new price and kill it. There are also two not-so-great options to try to get it done anyway: sacrifice the quality of the thing, or sacrifice the quality of your life (which is to say work overtime to get it done).
But what if you’re not using Scrum? Or maybe you are, but the stakes seem particularly high, like there’s a customer contract riding on the output of this Sprint, or someone’s reputation is riding on what you deliver in this Sprint?
When the stakes aren’t as high, it’s pretty easy to do the “right thing.” For example, at our Monday planning meeting last week, Richard and I committed to do some strategic work related to our leadership offerings. We committed to have a new draft of content ready for review at our Friday review meeting. Then, as we got into the work, we realized it wasn’t going to be as straightforward as we’d anticipated. There were some things we’d need to untangle, some ideas to test, and then some work to do based on how those tests played out. We were, at that point, not going to make our original commitment.
It wasn’t too hard in that case to split the work, report back to the rest of our team what we got done, and move a lot of the work into future weeks.
But we’ve had other commitments where the stakes felt a lot higher, and as a result, the options felt more difficult.
For example, we once had a client workshop that we were building some new material for. The workshop was on a Monday morning, and by midday Friday, it became very clear that we weren’t going to get it into a state we were happy with by the end of the day. We didn’t feel good about going back to the client to reschedule the workshop or change the topic or something—money and reputation were on the line, and we had a meaningful human impact that we wanted to create.
I noticed, Richard, as you tell that story, how much I want to explain why we got behind on it—the human need to rationalize and justify is so strong that even this thing that happened a long time ago, I still remember that week, and I remember that there were some specific things that had come up, and some client work that took longer than expected.
I just wanted to point out how strong that tendency is to want to rationalize when we get behind on something.
Right. And that’s useful for planning in the future. Think about how likely are the things going to come up to jeopardize that commitment. But In that moment, when we felt stuck, it didn’t matter how we got into that situation. It was what it was.
No amount of explaining why we were behind was going to lessen the blow if we needed to renegotiate it with that client.
So what do we do in a situation like this, where renegotiation really does have significant downsides? If we’re going to plow through and deliver something that appears to meet the commitment, thus avoiding the financial or reputational risk, we have to do some combination of sacrificing the quality of the work, sacrificing our quality of life, the two things we mentioned that Scrum teams often do in order to get something over the line, and then sacrificing scope, which is what the other kind of healthier options are– paring it down to “just enough to do the job.”
And I think the important thing here is that we can do that reactively, almost mindlessly, driven by the stress of the moment, or we can do that mindfully and intentionally, driven by purpose. With the latter approach, you can maintain enough presence of mind to be really conscious about what tradeoffs you’re choosing.
So, with that workshop example. We were objectively overcommitted. And we didn’t like the downsides associated with renegotiating the commitment. So, we were going to have to sacrifice some combination of quality of the work, quality of life, or scope.
For us, the quality of the work is not a lever we are willing to pull. So we looked at the other two levers. First, we went back and reviewed the conversations and proposal to see what we actually committed to deliver in this workshop. Often, there’s a decent amount of time between agreeing on a service and delivering it, and that was the case here. So we looked back at those conversations, and we realized that we had let the workshop grow quite a bit in our minds. The thing that we committed to deliver was smaller in scope than what we were planning. So, that was the first slice–what do we need to deliver to actually achieve the outcomes that we committed to? This got us much closer, but also meant a bit of a redesign from the larger thing that we’d been talking about that week.
And by the time we realized that we were designing a bigger workshop than we needed to, and we could cut it down, at that point, it was “quittin’ time,” it was 5 o’clock on a Friday. So we pulled the other lever, which is quality of life—and worked on the weekend, something we’re normally very strict about avoiding at Humanizing Work. And we got going early on Monday morning to make sure we were synced up and ready to go.
The workshop went really well, the client raved about the outcomes, and then we had some cleanup to do. Because “working on the weekend” actually meant that we renegotiated other commitments we had made for that time on the weekend. Commitments with our family, with our friends, and community, and personal commitments about our health and well-being, in order to NOT renegotiate the work commitment. Those personal commitments are sometimes a little easier to renegotiate because the stakes of those commitments are sometimes lower and usually trust is higher. But if we continually renegotiate our personal commitments to make room for work ones, we’re going to lose the trust and things will break down. This, by the way, is one reason why tech companies love hiring young single workers and providing a work environment that keeps them in the office: they don’t have those personal commitments and can be all in on the work ones.
Now, we’ve talked about what for us is a rare example of needing to sacrifice other things to keep a high stakes commitment. But some people always live in that state. They’re always overcommitted, and they’re always making sacrifices and heroic efforts to try to keep everything together. (We all knew somebody in school who was always pulling all nighters, and often, that continues later in life.)
I think you’re talking about me, Richard.
No, I have “a friend…”
Me too. “A friend.”
So, if you find yourself, like my friend, in this pattern of overcommitment—and, more than that, a pattern of over commitment that can’t be renegotiated—it’s worth digging into the root causes.
There are various ways people get into over commitment, and you might be able to address some of the things on the demand side. But I think the high-leverage thing to look at is why those commitments always feel like they can’t be renegotiated. There are certainly going to be some times when you objectively shouldn’t renegotiate, like “it’s going to cause us to miss payroll,” most of the time the resistance is subjective, something inside us. When you find yourself with those commitments, ask, “What’s at risk here?” and keep asking that until you get to the underlying assumption. So, Peter, since you raised your hand and I know you’re doing a lot of personal work in this area, what is at risk for you when you don’t feel like you can renegotiate a commitment?
When I am doing work on this, part of the work is saying no more often. I had a phone call yesterday, a good friend asking, “Hey, could you help out with this project?” And it sounded really fun and really interesting. And part of the work is saying no to commitments that I know might put other things at risk.
So that’s the first part of it. The second part of it, though, is the commitments that I’ve already made. Sometimes some of those are more important than others, and I kind of want to be the person that can do it all. There’s a sense that I’m a good person because I can do all of these things at a high level.
And that sounds like a pretty deep seated belief, like, this is who I am. How have you tested the validity of that belief to see if it’s actually true and if it’s connected to those commitments?
I don’t think we’ve talked about this on the show, Richard, but I did a whole experiment around this. I remember I was reading Bob Keegan’s book, Immunity to Change, and he talks about, you know, these deep seated identities and this belief about who we are. And he has a whole map. And I decided to test it out with being overcommitted all the time.
And the experiment I decided to run was I was going to say no to the very next call that came in for me to play a gig. I’m a trumpet player. This is when I was living in the Southern California area and I thought, That’s a test. Can I say no?
This is not normally what we think of as a small safe to fail experiment.
You know, I tend to go big sometimes. At any rate. The next call that came in was to sub in the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which is one of the great big bands in the L.A. area. And I thought, really, this is the call that comes in? And I turned it down. I said, I can’t do it. I’m already committed that weekend.
And I could have done it. I could have made room for that, but I just turned it down. Sorry, Isaac. As it turns out, I could have done that. But this was years ago and I expected to feel terrible. Turning down this big opportunity. It would have been a step up in my career as a trumpet player. And I hung up the phone and I almost wept with relief.
It would have been a hassle to get into L.A. It would have meant missing some family things. And I thought, maybe I don’t need to say yes to everything in order to feel good about myself. Maybe I can actually feel good about myself for being more focused and honoring my commitments.
So in leadership circle terms, which we talked about in episode 85, this is an example related to a feeling of being driven or ambitious and reacting to things in that way. This same kind of pattern of ending up in over commitment and feeling stuck can also show up if someone is high in pleasing on the other side of the reactive side of the leadership circle, where it’s more about not wanting to let somebody else down.
And we’ve actually worked with leadership pairs where one leader is high driven and their counterpart is high pleasing and they can get in this reinforcing loop. Like the driven person over commits for them and their team, then the pleasing person tries to bring everybody else along and make sure things get done. Things do in fact get done usually by sacrificing quality, quality of life, or scope.
Then the driven leader sees that and says, “See if I push the team, they get things done,” and the cycle keeps repeating. So the way out of the cycle is personal development, so you’re less subject to that reactive tendency. And we’ve coached a lot of leaders through that work successfully. So it can be done and we’ve done that work on ourselves over the years.
So the advice in Episode 54 still stands: there’s a clear way to make strong commitments. And, when we discover we’re overcommitted, it’s ideal to renegotiate. But sometimes renegotiating would cause financial or reputational risk that’s not worth the downside. In that case, it may be worth sacrificing something else to meet that commitment, but if so, do that deliberately and mindfully. Thanks for tuning in!