The power of commitments

The Secret Sauce is in Getting Commitment and Reaching Consensus

by Mar 5, 2024Business, Culture, Decision Making, Entrepreneur, Leadership, Management

In the business world, the phrase “reaching consensus” is commonly used, especially when a team is working towards aligning on a set of objectives. The aim is to promote procedural justice and achieve unanimity of views.

But there’s a dark and ugly secret about using consensus as our benchmark for building alignment: more than 50 percent of strategic plans fail.

Why? Because getting consensus isn’t enough. You need people to commit to the plan if you truly want to execute it.

Commitment Over Consensus

Commitment and consensus may sound like they mean the same thing. But they don’t.

Consensus is an agreement on where we are headed together. Someone might say, “Yes, I will follow that plan.”

The problem is that there are winners and losers whenever the world changes because of the plan–maybe there are changes in the budget, political power, or even someone’s position. And anyone negatively impacted by those changes will suddenly change their mind regarding their consensus.

A typical refrain could be, “This is unexpected; you never told us this would happen! I cannot agree.”

That’s why plans fail–and why you need to get commitment instead. Changes happen during a new strategy, which can negatively impact individual leaders and contributors. They will actively and passively subvert the objectives if they are more loyal to themselves than the plan.

My definition of commitment is the belief that someone will make a personal sacrifice to achieve an objective. Maybe committing to the plan means losing political power or assuming a new position. But if you are truly committing to a plan, you are willing to make some sacrifices to reach the ultimate result or objective.

Someone who buys in through consensus won’t make the same personal sacrifices as someone who is committed to the cause will. For example, they won’t send their star performer over to another team to improve their chances of success because their life will be harder.

This is often the overlooked secret to success in strategic implementation. It’s profound but not well understood or managed. It’s why half of all projects fail. We haven’t got the participants to engage with the plan with a higher-order emotion.

Consensus will only take you so far.

Signaling to the Team

One of the most powerful elements to build organizational commitment is signaling behaviors from top management. The team will intently study leadership to determine if they are serious about a new initiative. The actions that show commitment include time and attention to the effort, budget support, clearing roadblocks, and personal sacrifice. If the team sees the leader exhibiting these types of behavior, they are more likely to commit.

Committing to the Cause

The best way I’ve found to get someone to commit to a plan is by engaging with them directly as individuals–especially if they have something to lose in the bargain. Personal attention matters.

Your responsibility as a leader is to ensure that those most negatively affected by the plan understand why the decision was made and the outcome. Hopefully, part of that discussion is also about how the short-term loss the person will experience will be offset by the future gains created by the successful execution of the plan. It is important to discuss the other element of commitment that the leader has made to the effort.

I’ve talked to people in this way using language like, “I know you don’t want to do this. I get that. And I hate to put you in this position. But the train is leaving the station. And if you say you don’t want to be part of it, I respect that. I can’t force you to get on board. But I hope you do.”

The worst-case scenario is that after you’ve had this kind of conversation, the person will not commit. In this case, you only have a couple of options. You can figure out a different way for them to execute their commitment. Two, you can force the issue and hope they comply. And third, you can replace the person or shift them elsewhere in the organization.

It’s terrible to find yourself in a situation like this. But you must stay strong with your commitment, as Star Trek’s Spock is famous for saying: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”