While success on projects can be measured from a variety of perspectives, one of the most important aspects is that of honoring commitments.  Whether we are looking at it from the project manager’s perspective as related to his/her commitment to the sponsor, the team members and their commitments to the PM, or the team and its commitment toward the client/stakeholder group, breaking promises can have devastating effects on the project and even the organization.

There is a strong correlation between broken promises and lack of trust.  As the organization and the project team are able to deliver on their promises, we notice that the trust in the capabilities of the team and in the promise of the organization increases.  On the other hand, if we constantly see a project team that struggles to honor its promise, we will likely witness a breakdown in trust.

While the result of these broken promises is always the same, which is strained relationships due to this lack of trust, the source can often vary.  Broken promises on the part of the organization and project team can stem from:

  • Poor planning
  • Ineffective execution
  • Bad teamwork
  • Miscommunications
  • Incompetence
  • Misaligned Expectations

These are but a sampling of the type of problems on projects that could lead to a breakdown of trust.  These are legitimate challenges that arise due to various circumstances and their resolution is often not the same.  What adds layers of complexity to trust issues is that sometimes broken promises are caused by multiple problems such as the ones identified above.  This is assuming of course that we’re talking about legitimate challenges as opposed to other problems arising due to illegal or unethical action, which is not the point of this article.

What I have seen on projects is that broken promises often have a snow ball effect.  They often start with an attempt to appease a certain party without truly understanding the promise being made.  It may start at the sales (internal or external) stage, but that’s not always the case.  However, the biggest danger is when it becomes apparent that the team and/or organization is not going to be able to meet its original promise, another set of promises are made to try and address a potential threat to the relationship.  If those promises are made without much thought or worse with the knowledge that it would take a miracle to keep them, that has yet a more devastating effect on the project.

As project management practitioners, one important behavior that we need to exhibit for the good of the organization, project, and team is to be that voice of reason when unrealistic promises are being asked or being offered.  This is where true leadership comes in.  While it might cause us short term headaches, it will ultimately benefit the stakeholders in the long term.  I must say though that this opinion comes with a minor disclaimer that practitioners have to navigate through this potential mine field with a certain degree of diplomacy.  Speaking plainly and honestly does not mean that we have to do so with a great deal of finger pointing and hostility.

Truly successful PMs are individuals who are masters at communication and stakeholder expectation setting. They are leaders who are able work with everyone to establish the right level of promises, ones that are based on reality not simple desires.