Let’s think a little about dates. Specifically, I want to think about the date when something is done. There are different types of dates, and we can identify them by giving such dates various qualifying adjectives. I want to look at 4, which most of us intrinsically know the difference between, but which seem to be confused at work frequently.
- The aspirational date: this is the date someone wants or hopes something will be done by.
- The committed date: this is the date someone promises to complete something by.
- The planned date: this is the date someone determines something can be done by, considering the work needed to be done and the constraints and conditions the work must be done within.
- The delivered date: this is the date when something actually happens by.
There should be a relationship between these dates. Hopefully, the planned date is the same as the delivered date. Excluding lucky coincidence, this requires that a good plan was built, the project was managed well and that none of the conditions or constraints accounted for in planning changed.
The aspiration is just a desire, like any desire it may or may not be reasonable (i.e. based on reason) – but will probably influence attitudes and approaches to planning.
The interesting type of date and the one that causes the most problems, is the committed date. Commitments are usually related to aspirations, but the critical relationship is between committed dates and planned dates. This relationship can be in one of three ways:
- The committed date is the planned date: a commitment is made once the plan has been developed and reviewed, and it reflects this plan. This is the lowest risk way of making a commitment and usually the most sensible.
- The planned date is informed by the commitment: a bolder person may set a commitment first and then build a plan to meet this commitment. This only reliably works if the conditions and constraints of the plan are allowed to flex to meet the commitment. This is a viable approach. It is higher risk than the previous one and will not always work, but with some ingenuity and flexibility can often be made to work.
- The commitment is a promise plucked from the air: in this case the commitment is just an aspiration connected to a promise. It was made without planning and without any view of the constraints and conditions the project operates under. If this happens, sooner or later, and usually sooner, the commitment won’t be met.
We all know this. We can probably think of a senior executive who plucks promises from the air all the time. Before feeling too smug, most of us have been complicit in this on some occasions - nodding in agreement when that senior executive has plucked that promise. We’ve committed because they’ve committed.
Obvious? Perhaps. Common sense? Probably. Unfortunately, we are all guilty at times of forgetting the obvious and being nonsensical. In some organizations I work with, it seems to be an ingrained habit.
What can we take away from all of this? There are five things to consider:
- Don’t confuse aspirational dates, committed dates, planned dates and actual dates. To help avoid this confusion, don’t just talk about “dates”. Use the right qualifying adjective to make it clear which one is being talked about.
- Aspirations and commitments can be very powerful things. They can focus attention, motivate action and help get resources prioritised.
- But, no matter how senior the person is with the aspiration who makes the commitment – it does not make the impossible possible, or even the highly risky risk free.
- You can draw up a diagram that looks like a plan derived from aspirations rather than estimates. But just because it is written down does not make it one iota more likely to come true or in any meaningful sense does it become a realistic plan.
- If you find yourself committing without planning, understand the risk you are taking and try to get as much flexibility in the conditions and constraints you must deliver within.