Dysfunctional Commitment

Team commitment is a wonderful and sometimes fragile thing. Many responses to my description of it are indications of how frequently the word “commitment” is used in a dysfunctional manner. Indeed, the post was prompted by similar conversations.

Believe me, I’ve seen these dysfunctions many times. They are so numerous and varied that no catalog of them could be complete. It’s not the word, commitment, that causes the problems, however. And avoiding that word will not solve the problems. Instead, we have to look at the behavior and attitudes behind the problems in order to reliably recognize them and choose strategies for correcting them.

A common fundamental issue is distrust between managers and workers. If these two groups see themselves in opposition, rather than in alignment, then even the most well-intentioned statement may be taken poorly. This can engender a response that furthers the distrust. The reinforcing feedback cycle that results can drive a deep wedge between the two, and create persistent stereotypes.

When a healthy team looks at each other and asks themselves for mutual commitment, they’re committing to working together in trying to achieve a common goal. When someone off the team asks for a commitment, it no longer feels mutual. It feels like being asked to make a promise. Often it feels like you’re being set up to take the blame for something outside your control. Far too many times, these feelings are correct—you are being asked to promise something you can’t reasonably promise so that you can be blamed when things don’t go as desired. And the person doing so may, in fact, be in the same bind, and looking for a scapegoat to take the heat off themselves.

When fearful of being blamed if a promise is not met, for whatever reason, it’s a natural tendency to avoid making the promise at all. When feeling pressured to make a promise, it seems safest to promise as little as possible. Such evasion tactics do not typically go unnoticed. Rather than being seen as an attempt to avoid unfair blame, they are likely to be interpreted as an attempt to avoid work or responsibility.

This avoidance, or general disappointment in the rate of accomplishments, may lead to a request to “commit to a little more.” This is a clear sign that we’re dealing with a negotiation of a promise rather than a voluntary commitment. Even a request for “stretch goals” sends the same message. The message is that you could do more, but you’re choosing to not.

And so the cycle proceeds.

There are many similar ways that such dysfunctions can grow. There are probably very few in the Information Technology field who have not experienced some of these dysfunctions. Some leave and find happier places to work. Some work to make their place happier. And some think this is just the way things are.

It’s not easy unwinding such a spiral. It’s not the word, commitment, that causes the problems. And avoiding that word will not solve the problems. It takes communication, growing transparency, and growing trust. It’s difficult and dangerous to attempt these in a low-trust blaming environment. Courage is required to attempt it. Skill and/or luck is required to succeed.

17 Replies to “Dysfunctional Commitment”

  1. Very clear post. It captures my own feelings on commitment very clearly. “It’s not the word, commitment, that causes the problems. And avoiding that word will not solve the problems.” Thank you.

  2. George, given that the book “Commitment” has just been released and this might be interpreted as a reflection on it… just wanted to say that the Real Options practitioners don’t avoid commitment. We tend to make commitments when we have better information, and to commit to getting that information when we don’t. The 3rd Real Options practice is “never commit early unless you know why”, but we’ve been playing with the idea of “commit deliberately” as a different way of phrasing it, because of some of the reasons you note above.

    I think there’s a big difference between avoiding commitment, and making a decision about when to commit (and paying to keep options open where appropriate). My experience suggests that creating and holding options both requires and creates good relationships, in that the more we do it, the better our trust in each other becomes.

    I think the reason Chris and Olav phrased it in the negative to begin with was because we human beings have an innate desire for certainty. We automatically commit too early, and our judgement is often lacking.

    This paper, “Judgement under uncertainty” (long read but good) covers some pretty compelling examples. My favourite is the statisticians, who – knowing about small sample size bias – exhibit small sample size bias…


    1. Liz, I think that’s a different meaning of “commitment.” I think there it means “make an irreversible decision,” as in committing to a course of action. The commitment within a team is not a commitment of certainty, but of solidarity and intent.

  3. Hi George,
    Was glad to see your expanded comments–Twitter makes it so hard to understand another’s ideas fully.

    I don’t have any issues with your blog post. And I concur with both commentators, Tobias and Liz. It’s not the word itself, but how it’s used in varying contexts. Liz points out an important distinction about _when_ one should make a commitment, and unfortunately, it’s one of the least discussed ideas in the Agile community.

    I would also like add that “commitment” picks up a lot of connotative baggage depending on what a team tries to commit to. If one belies that the nature of software development is non-deterministic, then the opportunities for commitment are reduced. For example, if a team commits to 8 months of fixed-scope, fixed-cost, and fixed-schedule traditional waterfall project work, then they are committing to a system partially or mostly out of their control. I believe the same holds true for a team trying to commit to fixed-scope, fixed-schedule traditional Scrum sprints. On the other hand, if a team commits to building the best product possible within a given set of constraints, then I think commitment is a positive influence.

  4. Hi George,

    Even the commitment of solidarity and intent isn’t one that I’d like to make without more information. I’ve worked with some pretty destructive and dysfunctional people in the past.

    This is why teams take a while to form; because they need to get to know each other first. Once they’ve got to know each other and found out what each other’s strengths and skills are, then they can commit, knowing why.

    One of the big anti-patterns I’ve seen is where teams make commitments to each other, even inside the team, then hold themselves or each other responsible for any failure. In a team which doesn’t actually have that solidarity and trust I think it ends up being either depressing or destructive.

    This is also one of the reasons I love both Dreyfus modelling and Chris’s stuff on staff liquidity. They let people rapidly understand each others’ strengths and gather the information they need. Commitment and solidarity are IMO by-products of having that information.

  5. Liz, I like the Drexler-Sibbet model of team formation, and I can see how that deferral of commitment takes place during the team formation process. The ability to commit within the team is a reflection of how well the team has formed.

  6. George, the different meaning you mention in reference to Liz’ comment illustrates the reason I think the word itself causes misunderstanding. Several people have commented thst it isn’t the word as such that causes problems, but rather misunderstandings of it. I think the basic English meaning does imply a promise, and it’s the other interpretation that is mistaken.

  7. George, absolutely. Rather like respect, I’m starting to treat these signs of social bonding as tests of a working system. I think it’s probably more useful to focus on transparency and the information which allow teams to know each other quickly, than to target commitment and solidarity directly. Complex goals are best reached obliquely.

    It would be interesting I think to see if there are other ways of getting that kind of transparency and early information about team skills. I’ll look out for any other practices I come across.

    The one that strikes me as obvious is the pub…

  8. Dave, most common English words have multiple meanings, both denotation and connotation. If we avoid words that could be misinterpreted, we won’t say very much. Rather than faulting the word, perhaps we’d be more productive to reconsider our tendency to seize on one meaning and not consider the alternatives.

    In this post and the previous, I’ve described two very different uses of the word. A number of people have responded to the other post that this meaning is the only one possible. I notice that making such an interpretation often leads to the same sad result as if that was the intended usage.

    Perhaps clarifying conversation would be helpful when you’re unsure. Perhaps considering the rule of three would be helpful when a word elicits a visceral response. Perhaps we can improve our situation rather than being a helpless victim of it.

  9. George,
    Clarifying conversation may help, but it’s hard to do on blogs, twitter, etc. The overriding factor in our language is context and experience. How has this word been used in the past?

    Since this statistic probably isn’t available, we can only guess at the result. But if you had to guess, what would you say is the #1 asked question on agile forums, blogs, etc. over the last decade or so? Here’s my guess: “Our team continues to not make their sprint commitments, what do we do?” IMO, that is the dominant context for the meaning of the term commitment for the vast majority of agile veterans, those trying agile, and those just now reading about it.

    We can insist on using a definition of “commitment” from our own insular practice bubbles (mine included), but that may not be that helpful to the vast majority of people trying to understand this agile commitment thing. Regardless of the word definition, what interests me more is the decade of agile advice around the concept of commitment that never seems to move the discussion and the understanding forward. The frequency that this question continues to get asked tells me the predominant agile message on commitment isn’t working for the majority of people.

  10. Troy, your comment inspired me to respond. The response became too long, so I created my own post: Dysfunctional Commitment is a Good Thing 🙂 You can read it on my blog.

  11. “When someone off the team asks for a commitment, it no longer feels mutual. It feels like being asked to make a promise.”

    Thank you for reminding the importance of having a Product Owner as a team member.

  12. So many times I’ve had a manager tell me (as Agile coach) “That team just doesn’t care” when the truth is that he does not know why they refuse to give a guarantee (what is too often meant by ‘promise’ or ‘commitment’). My solution is make it safe for them to talk openly to him – when it happens it always works wonders. Thanks for the great post George – very clear!

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