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Letters to a Young Manager

Signing Up, #47
LTYM > Managing People -- How to Begin

Dear Sophie,
Committing to delivering on a project or strategy is something the entire team needs to do. Until the team "gels" around the goal, success will elude you.

Tracy Kidder tells an interesting story about how a group of engineers reached the point where they agreed with the project leader that they were going to do whatever it took to get it done. [1] That meant giving heart and soul, long days, nights, weekends...whatever it took. He called this process "signing up."

At the beginning of a major initiative at an organization, I wrote the objective on a flip-chart with the words "we commit to do whatever it takes to makes [this initiative] a success and achieve ... [the objective]". I then challenged everyone in the room to take the marker and sign the flip-chart. One by one they did; it was a powerful moment. I taped that flip-chart to my door so that everyone who passed by would see it. We had a champagne toast when we achieved the objective two months ahead of schedule. That's commitment!
Best regards,

[1] Tracy Kidder, "Soul of the Machine," 1981, about the engineers at Data General building a new 32-bit mini-computer, p. 63 on "signing up". The context for "signing up" is as follows:

"There was, it appeared, a mysterious rite of initiation through which, in one way or another, almost every member of the team passed. The term that the old hands used for this rite—West invented the term, not the practice—was “signing up.” By signing up for the project you agreed to do whatever was necessary for success. You agreed to forsake, if necessary, family, hobbies, and friends—if you had any of these left (and you might not if you had signed up too many times before). From a manager’s point of view, the practical virtues of the ritual were manifold. Labor was no longer coerced. Labor volunteered. When you signed up you in effect declared, “I want to do this job and I’ll give it my heart and soul.”
from "The Soul of A New Machine" by Tracy Kidder, p. 62-63

Moral of story:

Make a visible and specific commitment to reach the goal.

Discussion Questions:

1) Why does signing a flip-chart-document have such meaning? How is this like a contract and not like a contract?
2) How did peer pressure operate in this situation?
3) What role did putting the flip-chart in a public place have?
4) In what situations would "signing up" not work? Why?

For Further Reading:

1) See "The Bump Into Factor," Story #247

Copyright 2005, 2017, E. G. Happ, All Rights Reserved.