Get Commitment Straight from The Horse’s Mouth

By Clinton M. Padgett
commitment

It may not be spring, signifying Kentucky Derby season – the highly anticipated horse racing event that kicks off the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred racing – but fall is just as exciting for horse racing fans. Dubbed as the “most important international horse racing event of the year,” The Breeder’s Cup is held each November, followed by a series of other high-profile equestrian events across the nation. For most of us though, our concept of horse racing is associated with the Grand Slam events. These three races constitute the American Triple Crown of horse racing, grossing some of the largest sums of bets across the sporting world, with wagers totaling $165.5 million in 2019. How do people know who to place their bets on? A phrase you’re likely familiar with most accurately answers this question – straight from the horse’s mouth.

The origin of this phrase dates back to the 1920s when a horse’s age was determined by examining its teeth.  Another designation of this phrase comes from the idea that placing an accurate bet on a racehorse required information not from the inner circle of horse racing punters, but from the stable boys who actually took care of the horse and its mouth themselves.

The point of this idiom history as it pertains to project management? It’s essential to go straight to the source to get the right information whether for betting or for project management. In project management, the commitment of each team member to meet their tasks and deadlines is crucial.  It can’t be done by getting the commitment from anyone other than the person who will be responsible for those items.

Most people who have experience working in project management as team members aren’t used to this approach. They’re used to their project manager or functional manager setting the durations without any input from them. However, this never works.

During the planning process, it’s critical to focus on the team members and ask them to set realistic durations that they can commit to. If, for example, Jane is the activity manager, and she wants ten working days to complete the task, but her manager, Bridgette, thinks she only needs two working days, we need to resolve this conflict. We’ll start with asking Jane why she believes she needs ten days to complete the task. This is Jane’s opportunity to explain that “it’s ten days because I’ve got four other projects I am working on in parallel with this one, and I need to conduct some research regarding the issues prior to tackling this task, plus I am in training for two days during that period. It’s not like I’m going to devote one hundred percent of my time to this one task for ten days.”

Next, we ask Bridgette how she came up with three days. Bridgette replies, “OK, I wasn’t aware that Jane was working on four additional projects. I knew she had more than one, but I wasn’t aware it was four. Plus, I didn’t know about the training requirement either.  Knowing that I don’t think two days is realistic, but I still don’t think it’s ten. What Jane doesn’t know is that some of this work was already completed before she came on board. We already developed a lot of this intellectual property on a previous project. If she uses that as her starting point, she definitely won’t need ten days—probably closer to five days.”

Because of this conversation, Jane – the activity owner – is directly asked what she needs to make a commitment in light of the discussion. She might say, “That’s great news about the previously developed intellectual property. With that new information, I think I’d be comfortable dropping the duration to seven days … at least for now. I’ll take a look at what’s available and let you know if I want to drop the duration further. I can’t commit to five days at this time because I haven’t seen the previous work that was done, but I think seven is doable.”

The result? We get accurate information and expectations—and thus commitment—straight from the horse’s mouth which creates expectations that are much more realistic than anything Bridgette would have set had the conversation not happened. As a project manager you always want to go to the source – with the inclusion of other parties as well – but always the source.  Don’t place a bet on inaccurate information for your project!