Using Promise Theory to Improve Digital Service Quality

Jeff Sussna - Founder & Principal at Ingeneering.IT

Mark Coleman was blogging from Velocity 2014 Barcelona for Container Solutions.

Promise Theory was developed by Mark Burgess, the inventor of CFEngine. Jeff became interested in promise theory via design theory and he says that it enables him to help his customers to “look differently at their problems.”

“The digital world”, Jeff explained, “is starting to fuse with the physical world.” Jeff argues that this fusion is producing systems of greater complexity than can be easily understood by humans using current methods. Promise Theory, Jeff suggests, can help with this.

What is promise theory?

“To understand complex socio-technical systems, you need to understand teenagers”, explained Jeff and then proceeded to an example.

You’re giving a dinner party, and you live in a cold area, so when people arrive they will have big coats and you’ll need to put them somewhere. You decide that this will be on your teenage sons bed, but his bedroom is currently a “pig sty.”

You ask your teenage son to clean his room and he says: “I promise I’ll do it before dinner”

A promise, Jeff explained, is “a strongly stated intention to provide service”

Sometime later you’re out buying drinks for the party and your wife calls. She’s busy preparing dinner and the teenage son still hasn’t tidied his room.

A promise, Jeff then explained, is “a strongly stated intention to provide service which may or may not come to pass”

You’ve also made a promise to your guests, a part of which includes having somewhere to put their coats, so you now have a problem. You could have known in advance that your teenage son would not have tidied his room, because sometimes he breaks his promises. You could have done something to mitigate the risk.

Trust, Jeff explained, is not static. It varies with our experience of previous promises being kept. This gives us a way to think about real world systems. When we make a promise to our customers, in this case the dinner party guests, the onus is on us to assess the levels of trust we have in the promises being made to us by our suppliers and take actions to mitigate risks to the promise we made.

What is service?

“Service is an experience over time” Jeff explained, “not a thing.” Jeff then introduced the concept of job-to-be-done, by using a quote from AirBNB: “The product is the trip.”

When i book a hotel room, I don’t do it because I want a hotel room, I do it because that hotel room forms part of a promise that I’ve made to other people, my job-to-be-done. I need to sleep comfortably so that i can do my job the next day, for example.

When thought about in these terms, explained Jeff, “brand quality is inseparable from operations quality. Service providers promise to help customers accomplish their jobs-to-be-done.”

How can promise theory help digital service quality?

“Acknowledging uncertainty, gives us more certainty” Jeff explained and cited examples like auto-scaling, circuit breakers and continuous integration. We should assume that the services we consume may break their promises and still strive to keep our own promises to our consumers.

“Promise theory” said Jeff, “helps us to design our services better by asking the right questions. What promises should we make?”

Thinking this way, also engenders empathy. We begin by thinking about the service that we want our customers to have, and then work backwards to see if we can make that promise.

“Following this process”, Jeff said, “encourages us to unify design, engineering and repair.”


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