What’s the difference between a promise and a responsibility?

In the recent UK floods we heard a lot about defences failing and phrases being bandied about by engineers and managers such as “a once in a hundred years” event and “could never have been envisaged.” However when I hear these types of explanations it always makes me think instead of the crucial differences between a promise, a responsibility and a guarantee.


finger in the dyke
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Often large organisations, in the worthy name of professionalism, quality and standards, hand out responsibilities but neglect the underpinning commitments.

Whats the difference?
For example – a responsibility is to make sure that all maintenance is fully up to date on a flood barrier. Usually there is no shortage of people with statements such as these in their job descriptions.

But this is a million miles short of somebody making a promise that the barrier will not fail!

Do people (ideally more than one of them constituting a strong network of promises), in the organisation hold these kind of commitments? If they don’t then things will constantly fail … and it will be nobodies fault!

Does anyone in the organisation get held to account if the flood defences do fail?
This is not “the blame game” but in fact the vital missing ingredient in many organisation’s governance and oversight systems!

Now promises have to be held voluntarily and willingly – they cannot be ordered. So if someone is asked to hold a promise that the flood defence will not fail then it is perfectly reasonable for them to say that they need to discuss the “supports” which would need to be in place for them to be able to make this promise.

This is a really valuable conversation in an organisation – what would need to happen or change for you to be able to make this promise? If this conversation is conducted well it will identify changes that nobody has really thought about and even uncover major flaws in existing designs. This is because we automatically think in a totally different way about things when we feel truely accountable for the outcomes. Anticipated promises seem to give their potential promise-holders a powerful kind of instinctive x-ray vision of what is missing!

Sometimes people resist promises because they believe they are being asked to give guarantees. A promise is no more a guarantee than a responsibility is a promise! A pilot promises to fly the passengers safely to their destination and will die attempting to honour this promise but they cannot guarantee that this will always be the outcome.
The reality is however than no matter how professional your people are and how complete their responsibilities are unless you have their promises then you will regularly fail to live up to your implied and expected customer commitments.
The discipline of making and managing promises is part of a management discipline known as Commitment-Based Management (CbM).

You can download an excellent introductory paper on CbM published in the Harvard Business Review Promise-Based Management – The Essence of Execution by Donald Sull and Charles Spinosa.

One Reply to “What’s the difference between a promise and a responsibility?”

  1. Thanks for nice share!
    – Promise: A promise is a commitment by someone to do or not do something. As a noun promise means a declaration assuring that one will or will not do something. As a verb it means to commit oneself by a promise to do or give.
    – Responsibility is taking care of your duties. Responsibility is answering for your actions.

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