Commitment and Compliance

In their book "Agile Conversations", Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Frederick talk about the difference between commitment and compliance when they ask:

"Why all these requests for commitment? It is because we want to avoid the alternative: compliance." ~ Douglas Squirrel;Jeffrey Fredrick;. Agile Conversations. IT Revolution Press (NBN).

Apparently, there is at least a tension between commitment and compliance, if not even an outright opposition.

But can we even consider them opposites? I think we can. This is what Daniel Stillmann alludes to when he cites James Carse in his book Good Talk: "Whoever must play, cannot play." Compliance and commitment are two very different concepts, one demanding obedience, and the other demanding choice. If you are forced to comply, how much choice is there left for you?

Commitment, Compliance, a Greimas Square

To explore the deeper meanings of commitment and compliance, we can create a semiotic square of all possible relationships between them:

Structure Relationship Type Relationship Elements
Complex Contrary committed and compliant
Neutral Contrary not committed and not compliant
Schema 1 Contradiction committed and not committed
Schema 2 Contradiction compliant and not compliant
Deixes 1 Implication not compliant and committed
Deixes 2 Implication not committed and compliant

(If you're unfamiliar with the concept of the semiotic square, I've written about it here. The basic idea - as you can see in the table above - is to take all possible combinations of an opposing pair of concepts and see what those combinations describe. I recommend doing it whenever you stumble upon a pair of opposites. It's great fun.)

The semiotic square gives us six different combinations of compliance and commitment. How do organisations work and look like in each of those six categories?

Committed and Compliant: Mindless Following

Ignorance. Saying Yes to everything you're asked.

Work gets handed down to people, and they do their best to make it happen. Plans and procedures are designed by leaders, and announced ex cathedra, and teams follow them, unquestioning. They have ultimate trust in their leaders. After all, there's a reason why they are leaders, isn't there? When plans change, rules change, work changes, teams and individuals immediately pivot, and commit to any new direction, never questioning the new approach, regardless of how often the course is changed. This can resemble a cult-like behaviour where decisions by leaders are never challenged or questioned. Ideas flow only from the top down and there is little to no feedback.

Not Committed, Not Compliant: Anarchy

Do what you want. Chaos. No alignment.

When you're experiencing non-commitment and non-compliance, you're standing on the edge of a cliff. Coherence is lost because individuals and teams share neither a common structure nor a common goal. People do what they want, and start doing something else as soon as it suits them more. The system as a whole might be unaware of this situation for an extended period of time, because without common, functioning structures (or structures that only are farcically followed) feedback cycles effectively break down. Differences between "official" norms and norms in use can make this situation difficult to spot. Small-scale examples of such a problem might be a Definition of Done that is ignored, low quality of work people start to "live with" instead of addressing them, many elephants roaming the meeting rooms without anyone talking about them. Let all of this slip for long enough, and you have a big, cynical mess on your hands.

Committed And Not Committed: Undecided

Commit to only the fun things.

People get away with not doing work because the other work they are doing is good. The problem is: They decide on their own what to do and what to ignore. Individuals and teams commit to certain work that they like, and non-commit to everything else. They're not outright refusing work, but they make sure they'll prioritise unattractive things low enough so that they'll never come around doing them. If fun and purpose match, the situation is probably not critical. If they don't (and they rarely do), the organisation will struggle to create meaningful things in a consistent way. Everything will feel volatile, and it's hard to get clarity around many things.

Compliant And Not Compliant: Opportunistic

Break the law when you think you can get away with it.

People are braking the rules when they find them inconvenient or not serving their personal interests. People are compliant when their superiors are watching. But the power of compliance is not strong enough to make people follow the rules when watchful eyes are busy elsewhere. This is different from rebellion. People aren't breaking the rules to get things done. They break the rules because they don't like them and do not fear repercussions.

Not Compliant But Committed: Rebellion

Do the right things, ignore the rules openly and visibly.

Teams and individuals rise up against goals, rules, structures and processes because they want to get something done and see them as not helpful. They are committed to doing the work that matters but perceive a gap between what they are asked to do and what needs to be done. They are breaking the rules because they are not asking for permission to change them. A smart organisation will make sure that there is some agreement on what people commit to, the not-so-smart organisation will reign in the rebels by clamping down on their compliance (and extinguishing the flames of commitment while they're at it). The stupid organisation will just add more bureaucracy while telling the rebels they are proud of them.

Not Committed But Compliant: Zombie

Just follow the motions but don't care.

Whatever the organisation wants from them, individuals and teams just do it. If Mindless Following is a cult, then this is a cargo cult. People follow processes like rituals, going through the motions, but never leaning into them. Ideas get executed to the letter, without questioning. Most practices get hollowed out to the point where they are completely useless. Feedback is practically useless because it focuses on the wrong things, and the main effort of everyone is to make sure the output matches the input as exactly as possible.

Strategy is Moving From A to B

My favourite definition of strategy looks like this:

Strategy is a plan how you get from A to B.

Even if you know where you want to end up ('B'), you can only start your journey once you have a good understanding of where you are right now ('A').

Organisations are complex creatures, full of gaps and jumps and contradictions, because humans are complex creatures, full of hopes and dreams and contradictions. If you want to move towards your B, it helps if you understand the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of your organisation and the impact they might have on teams, individuals, work, and the organisation itself.

Did a scenario look familiar to you? That might be your A.

Published 2023~06~26