A new tool for making promises you can keep

A new tool for making promises you can keep

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On the bottom shelf of my bookcase, I’ve got a small library of books and a stack of papers that explore promises and commitments.

The authors ramble at length about the moral foundations and legal consequences of making, keeping and breaking promises. Yet, beyond the examples they use, none provide tools to help make a promise you can keep.

An idea I’ve talked about previously is a Promises Log. Keeping a list of your promises over a week or month. Then checking back to see how many you keep, and looking for patterns in the ones you don’t.

I still like a Promises Log as a way to keep track. However, it doesn’t help you think critically about a specific promise before making it.

Enter the Promise Wheel.

Before I get into the detail, a quick nod to the good people at coaching organisation Reboot for the inspiration. Their recent post about a “Wheel of Life” got me thinking about an easy and visual way to gauge a promise before you make it.

A promise is most simply when you communicate what you intend. However, behind what you say, and beyond hoping you’ll keep it, eight areas determine whether you can:

Time – Days, weeks, or months and beyond until the promise is due
Money – Cash flow or other kinds of financial capital
People – Those who you work for and with, buy from, sell to, and your relationships
Skills – Capabilities and expertise to deliver
Technology – Supporting tools and equipment
Information – Data, research and instructions
Culture – Repeat behaviours and motivation
Environment – External landscape, marketplace, governance and politics

These aren’t islands of endeavour. They work together and can sometimes offset each other. For example, you might not have the skills, but you have the time and money to get them.

The Promise Wheel

The Promise Wheel

Think about each area as it sits behind the promise you’re considering. Rate them from 0 to 5 on whether you are prepared and have what you need to confidently make a promise and keep it.

How each person and organisation thinks about the rating will likely vary. However, in general, 0 = I don’t have what is needed / unprepared, 5 = I have what is needed / prepared.

Click here to download the Promise Wheel worksheet.

For example, a client has told me they are planning to buy a service we don’t provide from one of our competitors. We had discussed developing the same service but hadn’t started work yet. Still, we’re considering a promise to provide it to them – they’re a big client and it’s a risk either way.

A turn of the wheel shows we have enough people, skills and tech. But we’re low on time and culture and don’t have much free cash-flow. We’re also not sure we have the information we need or if the environment is in our favour.

The completed Promise Wheel puts us in a better place to check the promise before we make it. And we can begin to ask the right questions to take us beyond the hubris and desire to please which often drive them.

Does low on time mean I can’t get more info about the client’s intentions and check out what others are doing?

I can’t afford to pay others to develop the service, so can I lean on the people, skills, and tech I have?

We’ve never been great at shifting gears quickly, so is a new service in under a month even worth trying?

How the wheel looks and what questions it presents will shift from promise to promise, and there will also likely be areas where you are consistently under-prepared or always ready.

That’s handy information which can help inform where to invest resources, adjust plans or shift strategy.

Here are five general questions to help you think through what you find:

  1. Were there any surprises?
  2. What facts support the ratings? (as opposed to opinions)
  3. Will low-scoring areas impact keeping the promise?
    (not all areas are essential for every promise)
  4. Do the high-rated areas offset those with lower scores?
  5. If we make this promise based on these ratings, can we
    keep it? (should doesn’t mean can)


Get in the habit of sketching a Promise Wheel on the whiteboard or in your notes. Especially when considering promises with high stakes for failure.

Discuss and rate each area as a group, or complete it individually to uncover gaps and disagreement about preparedness. Because, while every broken promise has a cost, some hold a greater risk to your purpose and values than others.

See you next time.

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