The Reliability Game

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Organizations desperately need reliability. Few have it. In most organizations, some people are incredibly reliable, others are not. Some are conscientious and beat deadlines. Others procrastinate. The procrastinators may be overworked, or they may be disorganized and lose track of what is expected. They may lack time management skills or just have no system for tracking their tasks.

But ultimately, when you’re depending on someone else providing something –information, a work product, artwork, an outline—it doesn’t matter why they don’t do it. It just matters that they don’t.

From the Individual to the Organization

Whether it’s your product, service, customer support, accounting, or COO. If it’s not reliable, it undermines trust, predictability, and results.

Accountability and reliability are organizational superpowers. Without them, things barely work. With them, everything works. [Click to tweet this thought]

A few cherry-picked examples: Unfinished products can’t ship. Half-attended meetings don’t fulfill their agendas. Missed deadlines make others late. Chasing late peers wastes time.

Any single lapse in reliability can cause mischief all over. It affects relationships, trust, reputation, mental health, employee engagement, retention, strategy and of course, revenue.

In general, projects are complicated collaborations much like an orchestral performance. A carefully crafted sequence of tasks must be completed in prescribed order for the project to be complete on time. Early steps allow later steps. There are loads of interdependencies woven into the fabric of any initiative.

Task Management Technology

Project and task management software packages try to corral reliability through their functions. They designate deadlines, dependencies, assignments, milestones, percent complete, and so forth.

But those are descriptions of hoped-for states. When a task is “assigned” to Trevor in (say) Salesforce, the program assumes compliance. It assumes that Trevor reads his alerts. That he will use his task manager and follow them; that he can complete the assigned task in time; and that he understands how the entire process works.

But what if any one of those things is untrue? Then the assignment either isn’t read or acknowledged, or he has something more pressing, or he can’t finish in time. It only takes one lapse for an entire sequence of tasks to be upended and the project to stall.

Unreliability Cascades

Those lapsed dependencies are insidious. A new release gets delayed because there is a block–someone hasn’t or can’t deliver. Then, the delay in shipping the new release causes sales teams to disappoint clients, customer success teams to confront angry customers, investors to hear trash talk, and revenue to stall; all because someone failed to do what they were expected to do.

Inevitably, the waiting party spends needless time reminding, chasing, and fretting over the stalled delivery.

Is there a better way to build reliability? Yes. It starts with a shared foundation of integrity and a purpose-driven vocabulary.


Consider the game of chess. It’s a board game that models a hypothetical war to capture the King. In the game there is a specialized vocabulary, and rules about how pieces may move. A knight can go 2 squares forward and one lateral –or the opposite.

Part of the reason chess has survived for thousands of years is that everyone who plays it agrees to the rules. They move pieces only as permitted. They take turns. And winning is always defined identically. Abiding by those parameters is what lends any game of chess its foundation of integrity. It works because everyone is playing the same game.

Language Games

The reliability game is not a board game that models war, it’s a language game that models negotiation.

And its foundation of integrity is captured in these collective declarations:

  •  If I say I will do something, it is a promise.
  • I keep my promises.
  • Everyone can count on my promises.

Reliability Game Grammar

Just like in chess, the reliability game has a specialized vocabulary to name the various ways of relating to each other about who will do what by when.

In this language game the vocabulary is simple. It consists of only 6 terms:

  • Request
  • Accept
  • Decline
  • Counter-Propose
  • Promise
  • Clean Up

Here are the moves that each term can make while playing:

  • Promise: A guarantee of whatever is being promised. Anytime someone says they will do anything, they are promising.
  • Requests: Anyone can request that anyone do something. Requests must be specific and time locked

When you receive a request you can do one of 3 things:

  • Accept what is requested as is (including the time)
  • Promise: When you Accept a request, you are making a Promise.
  • Decline (with an explanation), or
  • Counter-propose by changing the time, scope, or something else.  (A counterproposal is a new request).

With that basic grammar, we have a set of additional moves, including these:

  • Making and Keeping promises
  • Reporting that a promise is in danger
  • Cleaning up the mess of a broken promise through collaboration
  • Holding people to account for whatever they said they would do
  • Tracking and measuring integrity as # promises kept/#promises made (organizationally and individually)


This can easily be mapped onto existing project management platforms, calendars, and other tools. The difference is that assignments become requests. So, they aren’t firm or dependable until accepted.

We already do this with calendar invites. A colleague may set an appointment and invite me. It populates my calendar as tentative. The host can see that I have not accepted. But, once I accept it, my calendar considers that time slot to be taken. [Although this is often unclear in organizations because it hasn’t been made explicit].

If you are mentally mapping this onto your team you’ve probably noticed a few things. It’s a simple model, but it is challenging to implement.

For one thing, it upends the command control paradigm in which when a boss or manager assigns something, it is NOT negotiable. So, clearly the reliability game is a different mental model of management and may be a change.

Subordinates gain the right to negotiate. It’s not an easy change for managers used to issuing edicts.

It’s also not a simple shift for subordinates who have never pushed back, declined or counter-proposed about anything they’ve been told to do.

New Paradigm

All in all, the challenge is to craft a culture that can thrive through negotiation.

But for all the challenge it entails, the upside is massive. This paradigm works. It increases predictability and reliability. It cultivates personal initiative and responsibility. And it creates a profound level of trust and collegiality within organizations because of one simple thing:

I can count on my colleague to do what she said she will do!

That foundation catalyzes a breakthrough in reliability, predictability, and trust not just for peers but for customers, vendors, contractors, and the market.

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