Making and Managing Commitments: The most important team leadership skill?

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated April 2022

For teams to succeed they must deliver their commitments they make to their customers and sponsors and to do this they need to rely on commitments made by others to them. 

Fred Kofman, in a chapter entitled “Impeccable Coordination” from his excellent book “Conscious Business”, offers some tips on how manage commitments (also called “promises”). Kofman suggests how to spot “weasel” commitments, purely by the language used. For example: 

  • Somebody needs to do something (when everybody is responsible then nobody is responsible).
  • Sharon will do that (only an individual can make a commitment - nobody can commit on behalf of anyone).
  • I assume that’s OK with you (people have to be asked if they commit – it cannot be assumed). 
  • Let me see what I can do (this is no commitment whatsoever).
  • I will do my best (only slightly better).

Key Tip: when you are evaluating if you are happy with a commitment  being offered is would you accept such a promise from your airline pilot as you go on holiday with your family?

Skill 1: Seeking Commitments

Kofman points out that there are only six clear answers when you seek a commitment from someone: 

  1. Yes, I promise 
  2. No, I don't commit 
  3. I need clarification before I can answer 
  4. I promise to give you an answer by this date (“commit to commit”)
  5. I can promise to get it done if, for example, you help me for two hours or do this bit of it
  6. I counter offer - I can't do x but I could do y 

Skill 2: Making Commitments 

In terms of making solid commitments, we need to have four clarities at the moment we commit:

  • Do I understand the request?
  • Do I believe I have the necessary tools and resources to fulfil the request?
  • Do I believe the other people I depend on will deliver? (As the buck stops with me to deliver – I cannot blame them.) 
  • Have I anticipated and considered foreseeable risks? (Note foreseeable  –  we can’t predict future!)

Key Tip: Commitments not recorded (and tracked) are not worth the paper they are not written on!

Skill 3: Recording Commitments

Teams should maintain a Commitment Register simply listing for each commitment its four key ingredients plus its status, i.e.:

  • Who is committing,
  • To Whom,
  • About What,
  • By When.


  • What is the current status of the commitment (On target , At risk or Off-course)


No team will succeed unless it develops good accountability practices around the seeking, making and recording of commitments between its members and with external parties. Team-based Business Simulations such as CREW or CONSORTIUM provide an excellent environment for practising these skills in a pressurised but safe environment.

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Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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