Winter 2004, CSE 403 - Software Engineering
An important aspect of being a professional is to be able to make requests
and fulfill requests. The following model of requests can help you do
All of these speech acts revolve around the issue of making
commitments. Yes, "commitments." Many people don't like
the "commit" word, so choose whatever word you want as long as you keep
the meaning: when you commit to doing something, you are promising that, given
your current understanding of the world and your capacity and capabilities,
you wager that you will be able to fulfill that commitment. This includes
factoring in reasonable risks, such as the chance that other demands will arise
between now and when your commitment is due.
Each request has at least four acts.
Act I: Making the request
A request involves two people: the person requesting (consumer) and the
person being asked to do (producer). Before you agree (or not) to the
request, make sure you understand what is being requested of you. Listen
to your consumer. Ask for clarification. Figure out how you (and
they) will know whether you have successfully fulfilled the request.
Propose alternatives, since they may be more attractive than the original
request. The more shared understanding you two have, the higher the chance
A request needs to specify:
Without a common and sufficient understanding of these parts,
the request is un-grounded. Some people can reach and keep this
understanding without any written artifact. Especially if they have been
working together for a while. However, the more people involved and the
more tasks being managed, the higher the chance of misunderstanding if the
request is not recorded. The trick is to include just enough details.
Thus, a request needs the following information:
- Who will do it (the producer)? This is a person, not a team.
- What is it? A description of the item.
- When will it be done by? A date and time.
- Who is it being done for (the consumer)?
- What is its condition of satisfaction? How will you both know it is
done correctly? Make sure this is measurable.
Act II: Responding to a request
Part of the producer's responsibility is to make sure that they understand
the request, as described above.
Then the producer has the choice of making one of four responses:
- Yes. I commit to do this for you.
- No. I will not do this for you.
- Counter-offer. How about if I do X, instead?
- Commit-to-commit. I will get back to you about this by <date and
Act III: Working on the request
During the process of working on completing the request, the producer may
discover something that changes their understanding of what is possible or
If you are the producer and you realize along the way
that your commitment is at risk, you have several responsible choices:
- You can minimize the risk, by reducing the chance the risk will happen.
- You can mitigate the risk, by reducing the impact if the risk does happen.
- You can transfer the risk to someone else.
- You can ask for help.
- You can make a counter-offer.
- You can revoke your commitment. Tell your customer you will not fulfill
the request. Clearly, this will have a cost with respect to your
relationship with the consumer.
If you are the consumer and you realize along the way that your request is no
longer what you want, you can:
- Live with that.
- Revoke your request, and then enter a new request cycle. Note that
this may appear less rigid than this wording applies. For instance, if
you re-negotiate your request, you are in effect revoking your original
request and then negotiating for a new request. But you might not say
the word "revoke."
Act IV: Finishing the request
A request is not completed until:
- The producer has informed the customer that it is done.
- The consumer has informed the producer about whether they were satisfied
with the result.
Common myths about requests
I can't say "No" to my boss.
I can't ask for outrageous or impossible things.
- If you know you cannot fulfill the request, how can saying
"Yes" be responsible? Your boss will then expect you to
fulfill this request, and will be irritated (at the least) when you
- If you cannot say "No", then what does it mean when you say
"Yes"? In that case, what is the difference between your
"No" and your "Yes"? How does this help others
work with you?
- Put yourself in your customer's shoes - do they want you to
succeed? If so, how does a a false "Yes" help?
- Here are some alternative choices if you can't do what they asked you
- Make a counter-offer.
- Ask for clarification. Talk about the request. See if
there is another way to do it.
- Ask for help. "Can you help me figure out how I can do
this?" Remember, your boss wants you to succeed, since
your success will build his success.
- Cisco has an official policy of never saying "No."
Instead, employees were supposed to say "Yes,
but...." This leads to a conversation about tradeoffs,
and leaves the decision in the hands of the consumer.
- It is your assessment that the request is outrageous or
impossible. Perhaps the person you are asking has a different opinion.
- If the other person can say "No", then if you ask and they
decline, all you have wasted is some breath. Of course, if you
demand, not ask, you'll probably get a very different reaction.
A closing note
This is a model, and as such may appear more formal than what you will see in
practice. For instance, there are many ways of saying "commit"
or "revoke" without using those words. The appropriate wording
and dialog depends upon the situation, cultural norms, etc.