Six commitments: Putting the ‘Deliberate’ into the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation (part 1 of 2)

Somewhat in the style of what is easily my most popular post of all time – Introducing Kanban through its values (2013) – here is the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation (“business agility at every scale”) [1, 2] introduced through a set of six commitments. If this post turns out to be half as successful (and career-changing) as that one, I’d be a happy man indeed 🙂

The six commitments come in two groups. The first group is covered in this post:

  1. Co-creation ­– To keep finding better options, together
  2. Sensemaking – To make the best sense we can of every new challenge
  3. Trust Building – To build trust in every direction

The second group will be covered in a later post:

  1. Curiosity: To ask better questions
  2. Generativity: To create more ideas than we consume
  3. Consent: To celebrate the agency and ingenuity of others

What separates the two groups is that the first three commitments correspond respectively to the three top-level components of the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation. These are the overlapping and deeply-connected “supersystems” of Adaptive Strategy, Production (Delivery, Discovery, and Renewal), and Mutual Trust Building. Commitments in the second group apply everywhere. Together, the six quickly convey some of the model’s true character.

The Deliberately Adaptive Organisation’s three “supersystems”

The model works at every scale – teams, teams of teams, bigger structures, smaller structures, structures outside of any hierarchy, whole organisations. Mapping it to some part of the actual organisation, its power lies not only in what each supersystem represents, but also in the relationships between supersystems and between scales.

So to the first three commitments, co-creation, sensemaking, and trust building

Commitment 1. Co-creation ­– To keep finding better options, together

This might easily have been called the participation commitment. Its inspiration comes directly from Agendashift [3]; indirectly it draws in the Generative Change Model [4] and Dialogic Organisation Development [5] more generally.

Co-creation starts with making sure you have the right people in the room when you’re doing any of the following:

  • Generating and organising options (outcomes primarily, solutions later)
  • Evaluating and re-evaluating options in the light of progress, intelligence, and insights
  • Updating the group’s shared understanding more broadly
  • Expressing intent
  • Making commitments
  • Revisiting its shared sense of identity and purpose or engaging with any challenges to those

Relative to the organisational scope in question, “the right people in the room” means people highly if not maximally representative of the following:

  • Those with direct, first-hand knowledge
  • Those with strategic context
  • Those best positioned to hold the detail and the whole together
  • Those impacted by whatever decisions might be made

The commitment to co-creation is key to the authenticity of this participation; co-created options aren’t prescribed or otherwise prejudged.

Commitment 2. Sensemaking – To make the best sense we can of every new challenge

At whatever scale we’re considering, the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation must be engaged in some kind of productive work. This includes the work of renewing the organisation; in terms of both mechanics and importance, there is enough in common between delivery and change for them to be treated the same – as “real work”. (Keeping the two in balance is an important responsibility of Adaptive Strategy.)

When we’re doing that work, let’s not underestimate the opportunity to expect the unexpected, to notice what we didn’t notice before, and to interpret what we notice in different ways. In an organisation that’s continuously transforming, those opportunities should be plentiful: often we’re doing new things or experimenting with doing old things in new ways. To miss those opportunities would be a tragic waste!

Adaptive Strategy on its own isn’t enough for the organisation to be learning. The progress, intelligence, and insights it requires all come from doing the work – engaging with the real world, not just the group’s model of it. The sensemaking [6, 7] commitment is a reminder to frame and conduct that work for maximum learning, doing that appropriately according to context and the task in hand. As any student of Cynefin [8] will tell you, there are category errors and other risks be avoided here.

Undoubtedly, to truly maximise learning over time, you need an effective process too. But this is not yet another Agile process framework! For the following reasons and more, I choose not to lead with process:

  1. It’s table stakes. While there are enough organisations out there whose terrible processes and coordination systems compromise their viability (let alone their agility), there are multiple, complementary approaches to improving them whose effectiveness is well-proven. Moreover, the best of those aren’t prescriptive.
  2. It’s implied. The model that underpins the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation – the Viable System Model [9] – has certain expectations about process but it too manages to avoid prescription
  3. If you’re interested in what really scales, process is about the worst place to start

Commitment 3. Trust Building – To build trust in every direction

Organisations are built on trust. It might not always seem that way, but no organisation can afford for every task to be micro-managed, inspected, duplicated, and so on. Without at least some level of trust, very little would get done.

The trust-building commitment is however about more than reducing that delivery overhead. Even when relying heavily on participation, the Adaptive Strategy part simply does not have the cognitive or communication capacity to be into everything everywhere all the time. It has no choice but to be selective with its attention, and to use it effectively. It builds trust through a combination of where, where not, and how it chooses to direct its attention, what it communicates in those choices, and how it describes its underlying motives.

Trust-building works in other directions too. It’s a problem if commitments between peers can’t be relied upon, a problem that only gets worse if it’s hard to say no to additional commitments. It’s a problem if issues or risks aren’t shared, whether it’s because people don’t feel safe to do so, or that the need to share never occurred to them. It is wasteful to be constantly second-guessing the intentions of others. And it’s a problem if doing the right thing consumes more effort and attention than it should; trust isn’t only a question of psychology or economics – it’s an infrastructure question also.

Those first three commitments again:

  1. Co-creation ­– To keep finding better options, together
  2. Sensemaking – To make the best sense we can of every new challenge
  3. Trust Building – To build trust in every direction

In a second post, I’ll expand on the second set of commitments, commitments that apply to every supersystem at every scale:

  1. Curiosity: To ask better questions
  2. Generativity: To create more ideas than we consume
  3. Consent: To celebrate the agency and ingenuity of others

Read part 2:


[1] Adaptive Organisation: Business agility at every scale (
[2] Up and down the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation, business agility at every scale (
[3] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation, Mike Burrows (2nd ed 2021)
[4] The Dynamics of Generative Change, Gervase R. Bushe (BMI Publishing, 2020)
[5] Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change, Gervase R. Bushe & Robert J. Marshak (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015)
[6] Sensemaking in Organizations, Karl E. Weick (1995, Sage Publications)
[7] Sense, make-sense, decide, act, Tom Graves (2016,
[8] Cynefin (
[9] By Stafford Beer, all published by John Wiley & Sons: Brain of the Firm (2nd ed 1981, reprinted 1995), The Heart of Enterprise (1979, reprinted 1995), Diagnosing the System for Organisations (1985, reprinted 1995). I must confess that Diagnosing did not click for me until I made a second attempt after completing the longest of the three, Heart, which remains my favourite. A thousand or so pages in total (more if you count the re-reads) and well worth the effort. For a more modern and accessible treatment I highly recommend The Fractal Organization: Creating Sustainable Organizations with the Viable System Model, Patrick Hoverstadt (John Wiley & Sons, 2008)



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