Rosabeth Moss Kanter

The Change Master

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Promises You Should Never Believe (or Make)

Posted by rosabethkanter on November 2, 2009

PromisesPromises, promises. Are you still waiting for flu shots after making an appointment, then learning that the vaccine is not available?


The Obama administration announced that more vaccine was coming when it wasn’t. US HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explained why to an Associated Press reporter, “We were relying on the manufacturers to give us their numbers and as soon as we got numbers we put them out to the public. It does appear now that those numbers were overly rosy.”

Where have we heard that before?

Overly rosy promises are regularly offered by politicians, manufacturers, car salespeople, real estate agents, and nearly anyone trying to influence anyone else. Promises are the stuff of courtship or reassurance, particularly when people would rather deny the downside. Entrepreneurs urged to sell to a large corporation are often told that the big company wants to learn from them, a promise that dissolves after the deal is done. Bernard Madoff victims apparently preferred illusion to digging for facts.

This human tendency is exacerbated by systemic complexity. Economists know that forecasting is a dangerous occupation, especially about the future — which is funny but not a joke. In complex systems, inherent uncertainty joins with volatility to increase the likelihood that forecasts fall short. Boeing learned this at the cost of lost customer orders for its much-delayed Dreamliner aircraft. It is a common experience that new products often take longer and cost more.

Related to the difficulties of delivering on time and on budget are other promises that should never be taken at face value … Rest of the Article Available at


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