Transforming organizational culture, building new competencies for leadership and communication, and coaching people to accomplish what they say they want to accomplish is a challenge to us all.
At the center of this is the notion of commitment—not just the word, the idea that commitment is a universal phenomenon and basic to all human coordination. Commitment is the foundation for any kind of intentional change.
From my perspective, there are two kinds of change in our everyday experience of living: that which we make happen (such as starting a business, creating a new market, producing unprecedented results or building a new product) and the kinds of change which seem to happen around us in the course of life itself (such as climate change, various “social” problems and shifts in fashion).
In the first instance, people are clearly committed to make something new happen. In the second instance, our choice is often to change ourselves in relationship to changes that we did not conceive or intend—to cope with or adapt to a “new reality”. In both instances, however, the key to accomplishment is our capacity to commit ourselves to creating something that did not exist for us previously—to invent new interpretations and practices for having our reality be consistent with our commitments.
On one hand, it can be argued that without commitment nothing will change, at least that we have anything to do with. We must accept whatever the circumstances of our lives give us and learn to cope effectively. For many, this leads to a kind of resignation and passive acceptance without real possibility for changing our world or ourselves.
On the other hand, if we only commit to what our common sense tells us is feasible and possible, we will, by definition, have more of the same because common sense is our collective understanding of the world based on past experience and practices.
Yet, anyone can identify dozens of examples of “realities” today that were unimaginable or made no sense only a few years ago and yet are becoming ordinary now. Consider the internet, cell phones, cloning, fax machines, the collapse of the Soviet Union, expanding political awareness, terrorism and the global economy as examples. Most of the people I meet in technological fields say they are working on solutions to problems that will be obsolete by the time they are implemented. At the current rate of knowledge expansion, we are rapidly approaching a time when almost anything we learn will be obsolete before we learn it.
In such a world, to organize our thinking and our actions around what has worked in the past—our common sense—is a formula for ever-increasing anxiety and failure to achieve our ambitions. I believe that some of the most pressing questions of our times relate to how to thrive and prosper in an increasingly unpredictable world.
Question’s we have about commitment:
- What is it?
- What does it mean to commit?
- How does our understanding of commitment shape our lives and possibilities?
- ·What are the consequences of making and keeping (or not keeping) commitments?
- What is our everyday relationship with commitments, our own and others?
- Most importantly, how can our commitments enhance our satisfaction in living, our effectiveness in accomplishing our ambitions and our capacity to empower ourselves and other human beings.
The capacity to commit may be the most distinguishing and constitutive aspect of our existence as human beings. In spite of this, the term ‘commitment' and what it refers to is transparent for most of us most of the time. Most of us agree that commitment is important, but live as though it is a mere convention and that outcomes are a function of forces and factors outside ourselves.
Commitment is an action. To commit is to bring something into existence that wasn't there before. At the moment of its coming into existence, a commitment is a creative act, distinct from whatever reasons or rationale we might have for making the commitment. This action is being taken by and between human beings all the time. Whether we are committing to meeting a friend or paying a bill or going to school, we are always moving within a fabric of conscious and unconscious commitments. The action of committing is also always connected to the future—to another action, event or result.
Commitment defines the relationship between a future that is entirely determined by historical circumstances and one that can be influenced, changed or created by human beings. When we don't consciously commit or commit conditionally, we are in effect committed anyway—to the status quo.
The power of commitment is that it is the only action of which human beings are capable in which the future and the present appear in the same moment. When I promise to meet you, I am evoking the future time and circumstances of our meeting in the same moment as I speak the promise.
If we listen carefully to our own conversations and the conversations of others, we can notice that much of the time we are talking about our circumstances within the same perspective that we might observe a game or a movie. Our conversations are those of observers giving an account or telling a story about how we see or how we feel about our “reality”. We can often hear people speaking about “the way we are in Australia”, the problems of the economy or the society or within a particular company and why it is difficult to effect meaningful changes.
What is transparent, however, is that these conversations rarely result in new commitments to action. In other words, our conversations about what needs to be done or what needs to change don't, in and of themselves, change anything! We live in a kind of “cultural drift” in which we must learn to cope with historically determined circumstances with very little power to effect change or create a future that is discontinuous with the past.
An example of this can be seen when we speak with people in organizations and ask how much time is spent in meetings and how do people evaluate the value of meetings. Predictably, we will hear there are too many meetings and most of them are a waste of time. At the same time, most people are complaining that they lack the time to do many of the things which they say need to be done. The conclusion most often reached is to have fewer meetings. This is, in turn, followed by all the reasons we can't really have fewer meetings or why we can't have our meetings be more productive. The general mood becomes one of “resignation” until we simply accept or put up with the status quo and go through the motions of meetings without concern for or expectation that they can ever change.
Unfortunately, most of the work human beings do—in fact most of our lives—happens in meetings with other people. Consider, for example, that a telephone or email conversation is a kind of meeting, a sales call is a kind of meeting, and most planning occurs in meetings. Even social events or having a romantic dinner can be viewed as “meetings”.
Meetings are never a problem in and of themselves. We can all think of examples of meetings that were extraordinary, even life-changing.
What people are saying is that they spend too much time in meetings that are unproductive or unsatisfying. To a large extent, this is because people are speaking without commitment or they lack competency in resolving differences and having effective dialogue. If we ask ourselves what we are committed to making happen in the meeting—then organize our conversations around that commitment—we will begin to observe and experience a different meeting.
Not only do we empower ourselves as actors in the meeting (as opposed to reacting to what is said), but we also begin to listen differently to what is occurring and have many options not normally apparent.
The British writer George Bernard Shaw said, “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the circumstances. Unreasonable people adapt the circumstances to themselves. Progress depends on unreasonable people.”
This quotation highlights the dilemma that confronts us when we seriously consider making fundamental changes in how we live, how we work, our business culture and our practices for coordination. It suggests that if we expect anything to change, we need to be UNREASONABLE. More specifically, we need to make unreasonable commitments. If we only commit to what we think is reasonable or feasible, we are, by definition, making commitments to more of the same—to living in the cultural drift. “Reasons” are, by definition, products of past experience and common understandings for why things happen and what is or is not possible.
Being unreasonable is not the same as being unrealistic. Being unreasonable means acting in a manner that is inconsistent with conventional wisdom and common sense. Any example of significant change began with someone making a commitment to a possibility that was viewed as unreasonable or impossible at the time. Commitment is the difference between living in a context of responsibility for creating the future versus living in a context of reasonableness in which we must cope with whatever the circumstances give us.
One of the things I have learned is that people place a great deal of value on intelligence and knowledge. In a world that doesn't change or that changes very slowly, this value makes sense and is even practical since there is time to learn and apply what we know. In a world that is changing at exponential rates, however, conventional intelligence and knowledge are often obsolete before we have time to apply them. If we need proof or established acceptance of knowledge before we act, then it is often too late and our competitors have gone on to something else. We become intelligent and knowledgeable followers.
Intelligence and knowledge may inform what we commit to, but in themselves change nothing. The only thing that changes anything is commitment and action —intelligence and knowledge are not action. At best, they are a potential for action. At worst, they are a source of cognitive blindness and arrogance. In today's world, we must be willing and able to commit to possibility and action based on our vision and a view of what is needed to fulfil that vision.
Knowledge must become a by-product of commitment rather than a prerequisite for making commitment. Intelligence is being redefined as something like having the capacity for change.
Almost any discussion of how to effect changes—either personally or in an organizational context will provoke a degree of skepticism or even cynicism about pop psychology, management “fashions”, or self-help and consulting “gurus”. This cynical orientation usually results in either trivializing or discounting any possibility or the value of new proposals and approaches to change.
In other words, the problems associated with effecting meaningful changes in our lives and in our organizations are aggravated by the culture's tendency to reject whatever might make a difference.
Our actions, in turn, will correlate with how the world occurs for us. Since our actions are producing whatever circumstances we have, we inevitably find ourselves in a self-referential and self-fulfilling relationship with our view of our world. When people recognize this for themselves, they recover the capacity to be responsible for their point of view as just their point of view. When this occurs, people can interact with others in new ways, have different conversations, make authentic commitments, take new and unprecedented actions and thereby change or even transform their “reality”.
Commitment is a phenomenon that can be experienced and observed. We can remember that when we are committed we have a different mood, we observe and listen differently, we “feel” different than we do when we aren't committed or are not aware of our commitments. We can hear someone speak a promise and listen to what they say as being a commitment. When we see a great performance or accomplishment we often say that the person is really committed to what they are doing. In this sense, we define commitment as a source of action and accomplishment.
Commitment is also an action itself. Commitment doesn't occur until a human being expresses the commitment either by speaking or by doing something intentionally and directly. Commitment is choice. Commitment is the primary cause. Commitments don't refer to action; they are actions that transform one's relationship to the present and the past. Commitment is an action in language. I distinguish commitment as conscious action in the present moment. I cannot make a commitment yesterday and I cannot make a commitment tomorrow (until tomorrow comes).
From the perspective of commitment as an action, we could conclude that the answer to creating change to living a more productive and satisfying life and being more responsible is captured in the Nike slogan, “Just do it”. Most will agree, however, that knowing what to do and doing it are not the same. Cultures are constituted to persist. The nature of this persistence can be heard in the rationale or conversations we have about why we don't “just commit” and then do whatever it takes to fulfill our commitments.
If we have learned anything in the past 15 years of global competition, it is that we can no longer rely on a few leaders at the top of an organization to direct and control the work of everyone else. The whole concept of “empowerment” is based in the practical recognition that an enterprise cannot survive without everyone involved self-generating results based in their own intelligence and commitments.
“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meeting and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: 'Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.'”
W.H. Murray, the leader of the Scottish Expedition to Mt. Everest