“That’s not what I asked you to do.”

Have you ever been on the receiving end of that one?


How about “That’s not what we agreed.”

Well it’s no fun to be the one transmitting the same message either, especially to your web designer, mechanic, or plastic surgeon.

There’s no simple or single answer to why these breakdowns in people’s promises and commitments occur, but one contributing factor is definitely the failure to properly identify and agree on all of the conditions of satisfaction (COS) necessary for a commitment to be accepted as fulfilled.

This article is about COS and it is an extension of the article entitled “If you want something done properly, do you have to do it yourself?” If you are unclear on what I mean by COS please read that article.  This article is relevant to the following people:

  • Businesspeople dealing with new or troublesome clients or internal customers
  • Managers of new hires and incompetents
  • Any person making requests or promises in team situations where
    • team members are new, and trust is not yet established
    • trust is lost
    • incompentence is entrenched

Two parties are responsible for clear COS

The integrity of a commitment is given by its conditions of satisfaction, and therefore both the requester and the person accepting the request (making a commitment) must agree on the COS. They are both responsible for making sure that the COS of the request are clear and understood.

If they are not clear to either party, they should ask questions of each other until every important COS they can think of is articulated.

Tip: As a requester give up complaining that the other person “should know” anything, and start operating from the premise that nothing is clear unless explicitly expressed. You won’t always have to do this with a professionally oriented person and the time you take up front to make things explicit and clear will pay off in dividends down the line.

Note: Sometimes important COS only surface in the actual fulfillment of the request, and there is nothing that can be done about that except make sure these new COS are discussed and agreed to before the commitment is submitted as complete.

If you are making a request or considering accepting someone’s request, are you clear on what you are being asked?

Ask questions if Conditions of Satisfaction (COS) are not clear

Questions that help clarify COS fall into the following categories:

How should the request be done?

Sometimes process is just as important as outcome and unless you’ve complied with this request many times in the past, don’t assume that how something is done is unimportant to the outcome or to the person making the request.

Unless clear precedent has been set, never assume that what is obvious to you is obvious to someone else. Some questions that help clarify the how of the request being made are:

With what attitude?

The attitude shown to a coach class customer on a Greyhound bus may not be critical but it is critical to the first class passenger on American Airlines.

With what tools?

Should you use a screwdriver or a drill, Microsoft Word or Adobe In-Design, the image editor that came with your camera or PhotoShop?

With whom?

In team or political environments, the process often is as important as the outcome. Therefore ask who should be involved in the carrying out of a request? If there are real contributors who can help the outcome, or spoilers who will not accept the outcome unless they are consulted make sure they are specified as a condition of satisfaction.

What qualities should the intended situation possess?

Every request is really a request to produce a situation e.g. bring something into existence, produce an experience, create a capacity, stop a breakdown or mitigate its effects etc. These can all be considered situations. The quality of the situation to be produced may be important, or it may not. If you are not sure, ask.

What is its shape?

This might be the specific question for certain design or artistic requests but for others the question may take different forms. For requests to produce communication documents this question may be “What direction, tone or angle should I take?”

For requests to produce capacities e.g. computing power or produce food, learn or cooperate the question may be “For how many people, and for what duration of time?”

Questions of shape go directly to the surface or top-level conditions of satisfaction that must be communicated in order to carry out a request.

Often knowing the purpose of the request will give you the answer to this question – more on purpose in a subsequent article.

What is its size?

How big or small should something be? Knowing how many people to cater for may not be enough to determine the answer to this question. For that you might need to know the intended mood of the event and if there are any acts, speeches or performances that might impact this condition of satisfaction.

The length of a document may also be similarly affected by other requirements. For example whether the document is to be produced to fulfill legal requirements and is not meant to be read e.g. many financial or Terms of Service agreements, or whether the document is meant to teach or entertain and therefore must be easily read and understood.

What is its texture?

Think of cloth, in particular clothing, or any fabric that touches your skin. You know that texture makes a big difference. Texture is a depth of consideration or experience that can greatly influence the quality of any situation you are being requested to produce.

Be very clear on the depth of the analysis, or the type of experience you are being asked to produce at a gala event, or at the company’s annual celebration party. These relate to the requirement of texture.

When is it due?

This is the most basic of requirements when making a request. Establishing a due date and time is essential to making a powerful request because it establishes urgency and importance and reduces the cost of management in particular managing people.

Never, ever have your boss or client feel that you need to be managed and one sure way to do that is to always communicate due-dates and either fulfill them or communicate delays as soon as you become aware of them.

Too often I see people in business and family settings making and accepting requests with no due date. This inherently builds breakdown into the process because if either the requester or the person accepting the request (making a promise) have different time horizons for the fulfillment of the request – as is often the case; the manager, client or whoever is making the request is now forced to “check-up” on the person who accepted the request to see if it has been done. In a business environment this incurs a needless cost of management.

Always, always, always communicate a “by-when” or a due-date in your requests or promises!

Always document the request with its COS

Always write down each request or it’s resulting commitment (when someone accepts the request) someplace where it is visible to involved parties e.g. in meeting minutes or some project or meeting management application like AfterTheMeeting. In professional organizations this reduces organizational cost/friction because:

  • Requests are checked for relevance to the team’s purpose.
  • COS are well thought out and articulated.
  • Requirements to fulfill the request are properly considered and factored in before anyone accepts the request.
  • Commitments are kept visible and serve as reminders.
  • Individual and team performance have an objective basis for assessment.

In non-professional or disfunctional team environments writing down each request and its associated COS serves to

  • Cover your ass
  • Document and provide evidence for non-performance
  • Provide a structure to build a professional team environment, especially after arrogant, non-performers see the error of their selfish ways or are executed.

Whatever environment you’re in it pays to document the COS of requests and commitments made.  The consequences of not doing so are needless arguments and disagreements about whether requests have been completed properly or satisfactorily; damage to relationships; damage to trust and career.

COS are just as important for commitments you make to yourself

Some commitments are made without a request being made by someone else. For example you can make a commitment to become healthier without anyone asking you to.

In such cases, it is also important for the COS of those commitments to be made explicit and visible to other people for the simple reason that people tend to forget the what and why of commitments unless there is a powerful structure holding them in place.

Keeping such commitments to yourself and not writing them down provides no structure for honoring your commitment while writing it down, listing it’s COS and having someone hold you to account provides a powerful structure for you to honor your commitment.


  • Both the person making the request and the person considering accepting it are responsible for agreeing to what the conditions of satisfaction are for any request to be fulfilled.
  • Unless clear precedents have been established, ask questions to help establish the COS. Never assume that what is clear and obvious to you is clear and obvious to the other person. Questions should cover:
    1. How should the request be carried out e.g with whom, with what tools, attitude etc.
    2. What qualities should the requested situation possess e.g. it’s shape, size and texture?
    3. When is it due?
  • Always write down the COS so that both parties can refer to when the request is submitted as completed. This eliminates subjectivity and places some responsibility on the requester for not being clear if the requested situation is not to their satisfaction.
  • For commitments made without a request e.g. commiting to lose weight or volunteering for something, always write down the COS for your commitment and declare it to someone who will hold you accountable.
  • Always agree on a completion date – a by-when the request will be carried out – and always communicate any delay the moment it becomes clear. This demonstrates professionalism, integrity and respect for the concerns of the individuals who are requesting your help.

Don’t forget, it’s all about help; specifically expanding your capacity to give and get valuable help. Including strong conditions of satisfaction (COS) in your practice of commitments is key to your being able to get and give better help than the people or companies you are competing with.

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.