Wednesday 23, Feb 2022

Broken promises don’t come cheap

By Michel Hogan

Use the Promise Wheel to make promises you can keep, build trust and achieve a brand that sticks.

People make dozens of promises every day, and it’s easy to think you know all there is to know about them and how they work. After all, since kindergarten, we’ve heard “keep your promise”. But beyond the playground, they take on an essential role in the tumble of trade.

Simply put, a promise is when you communicate what you intend.

Communicating intentions

Let’s say X promises Y they will do something. Y accepts that X intends to do it and exchanges Z. (X and Y can be organisations or individuals, and Z can be any form of currency from dollars or services to technology or trust.)

“A fundamental purpose of promising is to provide assurance,” writes theorist Abraham Sesshu Roth. Yet that assurance is hard to find. Instead, too many hold a cavalier ‘we can always apologise if we don’t keep it’ mentality, which fails to account for the cost of a broken promise.

Consider Charles Fried’s accounting in his book Contract as Promise, “A promise invokes trust in my future actions, not merely in my present sincerity”, meaning the burden of broken promises travels beyond the immediate agreement and undermines the credibility of future actions.

Every broken promise erodes value and makes it harder and more costly to do business next time. And the fix requires more than a shift in mindset. Extracting the full value from your promise requires disciplined thinking about all aspects before making it.

There’s certainly no shortage of literature on the moral foundations and legal consequences of making and breaking promises. Yet, beyond a few examples, few tools exist to help make a promise you can keep.

Enter the Promise Wheel

First, a quick shout out to the good folks at coaching organisation Reboot. A recent post from them about a “Wheel of Life” helped me think about a useful and useable way to gauge promises before you make them.

Behind what you say and beyond hoping you’ll do it, I’ve found eight areas that generally play a part in keeping promises.

Time – Days, weeks, or months lapsed until the promise is due
Money – Cash or other sorts of financial capital
People – Workers, customers, suppliers, etc., and your relationships with them
Skills – Capabilities and expertise to deliver
Technology – Supporting tools and equipment
Information – Data, research and instructions
Culture – Repeat behaviours and motivation
Environment – External marketplace, governance landscape and politics

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

Here’s how the Promise Wheel works:


Each area sits behind the promise youre considering. Think about and rate them from 0 to 5 on whether you are prepared and have what you need to confidently make the promise and keep it.

You might assign the score differently from me. However, in general, 0 means I dont have what is needed and am unprepared, 5 means I have what is needed and am prepared.

Click here to download the free Promise Wheel worksheet.

For example, a customer has shared they are planning to buy a product we dont provide from a competitor. Our company has talked about developing the same product but haven’t yet. Still, were considering promising we can provide it – theyre a big client and its a risk either way.

Working around the promise wheel shows we are prepared in people, skills and tech areas. It also shows were short on time, weak on culture and there isn’t much free cash-flow. Further, were unsure if we have the enough information or if the general environment is on our side.

Checking the promise before we make it


The completed Promise Wheel checks the promise before we make it. Meaning we can move beyond common drivers of hubris and the desire to please, and ask the right questions.

Does short on time mean I cant get more information about the customer’s intentions and check out what competitors are actually doing?

I cant afford to outsource developing the service, so can I do it with my existing people, skills, and tech?

Shifting gears quickly has never worked out for us, so is a new product in under a month even worth trying?

Every turn of the promise wheel will present different questions. It’s also likely to show areas where you’re consistently weak and strong.
Thats valuable information you can use to inform what resources you need, how to alter plans or shift strategy.

Five general questions to assist you think through what you find:

  • Were there any surprises?
  • What facts support the ratings? (as opposed to opinions)
  • Will low-scoring areas impact keeping the promise?
  • Do the more highly rated areas counter those with lower scores?
  • Based on these ratings, can we keep this promise? (should doesnt mean can)

You can complete the Promise Wheel as a group or individually, using the ratings to uncover gaps and differences in opinions about your preparedness.
A recommendation is to get in the habit of sketching a Promise Wheel on the whiteboard when you’re in a team meeting or in your notes. Especially when considering promises where failure carries high stakes.
I define brand as a result of the promises you keep. And it follows you can’t achieve a brand that sticks if you’re not a good promise maker.

Forget the puny ‘brand promise’ people talk about. Every single promise matters.

So, what promises are you making? And how are you keeping them?
With thanks to our guest author:

Michel Hogan
Brand Counsel
Michel Hogan

Michel Hogan is a brand counsel, trailblazing thinker, writer and keynote speaker. She advises organisations on their purpose and values and the risks of making the wrong promises. You can find Michel at Her ebook “The Unheroic Work” is now available.