Mastering conversations for
context, Possibility, action
The third practice begins with the real-ization that all commitments are made
in conversations. 3 The practice is to
become an observer and facilitator of
those conversations. There are three
basic kinds of conversations.
˲ ˲ Context. Define the purpose, meaning, and value of actions.
˲ ˲ Possibility. Invent possibilities for
future action (in the context).
˲ ˲ Action. Elicit the commitments
that will realize specific possibilities
and see them through to completion.
It would be a misunderstanding of
Allen’s model (practice 1) to interpret
his “actionable” items only in the third
sense. Professionals who do not create
context will find it difficult to get anyone
to work with them. Although the action
itself is performed in the third conversation, the other two are needed before
people are willing to engage in a conversation for action. Sometimes you need
to schedule time for context and possibility conversations, but more often you
can insert them as needed as prefaces
to your requests and offers (which open
conversations for action).
A conversation for action takes
place between a customer and performer; the customer makes a request
(or accepts an offer) that the performer commits to fulfilling. The transaction between them can be visualized
as a closed loop with four segments:
request, negotiate, perform, accept. 5
Performers often make requests of
others to get components for their
own deliveries; thus a single request
can evoke coordination in a larger
network of people (for details on conversations for action and their skilled
management, see 3–5).
a big software
To manage commitments means to
manage the conversations leading to
the fulfillment of those commitments.
Have you or someone made the appropriate requests or offers? Who is responsible for performing each action?
Who is responsible for accepting and
declaring satisfaction with the result?
Do you trust promises made to you by
others along the way?
Managing capacity and Mood
The final aspect of the picture is your
ability to manage your capacity and
mood. You have the capacity for a
commitment if you have the time and
other resources needed to fulfill the
commitment. If you do not have the
resources, you will need to initiate
conversations to get them—and you
must manage those conversations
as well. Generally, if you have accepted too many commitments relative
to your capacity, you will feel overwhelmed, victimized, and sometimes
panicked—poor moods for productivity. When you do not have the capacity,
you can find yourself in a death spiral
of an increasing backlog of broken
promises, negative assessments about
your performance, lack of willingness
to trust you, and a personal sense of
powerlessness. Over time, these bad
moods increase stress and anxiety in
your body and lead to chronic diseases. Not a pretty picture.
With a simple exercise, you can
assess whether you have the capacity
for your commitments and take cor-
rective steps when they are beyond
your capacity. 3, 4 On a three-column
spreadsheet, make one row for each
commitment. Put a description of the
commitment in the first column, the
number of weekly hours you need to
do it well in the second column, and
the number of weekly hours you ac-
tually spend in the third. Make sure
to include all your “big rock” com-
mitments including time for fam-
ily, sleep, and exercise. Many people
who feel chronically overwhelmed
discover from the exercise that their
column-two total exceeds 168, the
number of hours in a week. Even if the
column-two total fits, they discover
that their column-three total exceeds
100 hours per week for professional
commitments. In contrast, people
who feel productive and satisfied usu-
ally do not spend more than 60–80
hours per week on professional com-
Commitment management presents a
big software challenge. There are software tools that help with some of the
four practices separately. For example,
OmniFocus ( omnigroup.com), Things
( culturedcode.com), and Taskwarrior
( taskwarrior.org) conform to Allen’s
workflows in practice 1. Orchestrator
( orchmail.com) tracks conversations
for action through their stages in practice 3; ActionWorks ( actiontech.com)
goes further, mapping and managing
entire business processes. Can someone design a coherent system that
supports all four together?
If you learn the four commitment-management practices, you will be
able to execute all your commitments
productively and in a mood of fulfillment and satisfaction. All your customers will be satisfied and you will enjoy a
strong, trustworthy reputation.
1. allen, D. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free
Productivity. Penguin, 2001.
2. Covey, s.r., merrill, r., and merrill, r. First Things First.
simon & schuster, 1994.
3. Denning, P. and Dunham. r. The Innovator’s Way:
Essential Practices for Successful Innovation. mIt
4. Denning, P. accomplishment. Commun. ACM
46, 7 (July 2003), 19–23. DoI= http://doi.acm.
5. winograd, t. and Flores, F. Understanding Computers
and Cognition. addison-wesley, 1987.
Peter J. Denning ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is Distinguished
Professor of Computer science and Director of the
Cebrowski Institute for innovation and information
superiority at the naval Postgraduate school in monterey,
Ca and is a past president of aCm.
Copyright held by author.