New Years Commitments – Do You Swear It?

A politically active friend of mine posted her invitation to the inauguration on her facebook page which got me thinking about the inauguration process.  The key element is the public statement of the Oath of Office “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.”  January is typically also the time of year for personal oaths.  We often commit publicly to our new years resolutions.  Also, businesses will establish and commit to their plans for the year.

The concept of oaths or swearing is interesting.   Why do we ask politicians to swear things?  Why do we feel the need to swear things?  With an oath we are promising now to do something at a future time.  On the surface this doesn’t seem to make sense.  Just as we know now more than we knew a year ago, we know less today then we will know in the future.   In essence, by swearing, we are saying that I believe that my decision now is better than my decision will be in the future.

Well, in the political example it is easy to see why this is the case.  The politician knows that in the future they will be tempted to not do the right thing so they are committing publicly in advance to, hopefully, keep them on the right track.  A simple analogy where I frequently face this concept is with exercise.  I know now that it is good for me to exercise in the morning, however, when the alarm rings my judgement might be clouded to think that I am better off sleeping J.  Therefore I make a promise to my hiking buddies in the evening that I will meet them early the next morning.   The most famous literary example of this is in Homer’s Odyssey.   Odysseus knows that he will be seduced by the Sirens so he instructs the sailors tie him to the mast when he goes by the island.  So in fact his decision was better earlier than later just as my exercise decision was better at night then the next morning.

But unfortunately there are many situations where we know less than we will know in a future date and for some reason we still make a promise.  And then circumstances change or we change.  Or, we are right about what will happen but we are wrong about how we will feel.  A good example of this is the expectant parent of their first child.  He or she feels committed to their job and plans to come back to work after that child’s birth but after the beginning of that new parenting experience has a change of heart and doesn’t want to return to work full time.  The oath is made with good intention and commitment but will not be fulfilled.

I’ve always appreciated that Judaism recognizes the human fallibility involved with oaths, in fact, dealing with this fallibility is a core of the liturgy.  One of the most famous prayers, Kol Nidre, is chanted to absolve you from vows you will make.  Tradition recognized our intentions may outstrip our ability to fulfill and this need for annulment.

Commitments are important.  They are at the core of all of our relationships – with our children, our spouses, our friends and our coworkers.  Any exceptions must truly be exceptions or the relationships break down.  Nobody wants to be friends with someone who doesn’t take their commitments seriously.  We need to be able to rely on our colleagues.  Does he or she consistently do what they say they will do?  We need to be able to trust in that.

This is the time of year for commitments in business as most companies go through an annual planning cycle.  At SugarSync we agree on the annual plan typically at our January board meeting.  This is always challenging given how dynamic our market is but we do it.  Annual plans and milestones are important as they serve as benchmarks – how are we progressing? Do tactics need to change? Do strategies need to change?  Ideally the plan (and goals for employees in general) should be an “achievable stretch”.  If the team thinks it’s impossible they will be frustrated and the plan can be a disincentive but if it’s seen as an achievable stretch that plan will encourage people to go the extra mile.

It’s important to meet your business commitments – customers, investors, employees are all watching this.  Fred Wilson wrote a blog post just on this a few weeks ago stressing how important it is for startups to deliver on their promises.  But plans can be wrong and a smart board will know if the goalposts were set to close or too far.  More importantly, focus on those goalposts should not keep us from observing closely if the game is completely changing and adjusting accordingly.

In startups and fast-growing markets decisions must be made without full information and as we learn more we adjust – either fine tune or even pivot.  Business planning is not like the exercise example, we certainly know much less now then we will in the future.  We want our future decisions to leverage maximum knowledge.

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