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

Recap: Somewhat in the style of my 2013 breakthrough post Introducing Kanban through its values, here is the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation (“business agility at every scale”) introduced through a set of six commitments.

In part 1 we covered the first three:

  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

Those first three commitments correspond respectively to the three top-level components of the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation [1, 2]. These are the overlapping and deeply-connected “supersystems” of Adaptive Strategy, Production (Delivery, Discovery, and Renewal), and Mutual Trust Building.

The Deliberately Adaptive Organisation’s three “supersystems”

For this concluding part, a second group of commitments that apply right across the model:

  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

As with the first three, they apply at every scale – teams, teams of teams, bigger structures, smaller structures, structures outside of any hierarchy, whole organisations. As commitments, they’re made by people, leaders taking the lead.

Commitment 4. Curiosity: To ask better questions

Much of Agendashift [3] could be described bottom-up as follows:

  • Questions to ask
  • How to recognise a good question when you see one, learning to develop your repertoire, finding and integrating relevant bodies of knowledge (Clean Language and Solutions Focus, to name two)
  • Patterns to organise those questions – Agendashift’s two most important being the IdOO (“I do”) pattern [4] –Ideal, Obstacles, Outcomes – and Right to Left [5], working backwards from key moments of impact and learning
  • The (meta-)strategies / leadership principles [6] that motivate those questions

It could also be described as the product of a question, one that has served it well over the years:

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

That takes us to the role of curiosity and questioning in Adaptive Strategy. Barely scratching the surface, just a few examples:

  • What’s it like to be an employee of ours?
  • What’s it like to be a customer of ours?
  • What’s it like not being a customer of ours?
  • What’s happening when we’re reaching the right customers, meeting their strategic needs1?
  • Whose needs would we be meeting? What new stories could they tell?

1Strategic needs: their needs, our strategy

In Delivery too it pays to explore needs [7]. Far from being redundant, it establishes the context necessary to do a good job and sets the scene for later learning. Stepping back from individual pieces of work to the current workload as a whole, there is a whole new set of questions that apply (here’s where Right to Left really shines). And feeding back into strategy, there’s curiosity into how the work is done, the experience of doing it, and the level of capability demonstrated.

And then there’s Mutual Trust Building. Being careful with one’s assumptions is a great lesson from Clean Language (see [8]). Especially for leaders, it’s also important to remember that there are at least two sides to every conversation, and that every participant has the right to be curious. Respect for that that might be the difference between a conversation fruitful to all sides and one that generates more anxiety than insight [9].

Commitment 5. Generativity – To create more ideas than we consume

This commitment is perhaps the Why to the previous commitment’s How. We ask more and better questions because we need more and better answers – answers we didn’t already know. More and better answers means more and better intelligence, more and better insights, more and better ideas for innovation.

In a forthcoming book [10] for the BMI series on dialogic organisation development I suggest that a good working definition of generative process is one that creates more ideas than it consumes. And it’s not only about dialogic styles of strategy development – what I had in mind were the improvement cycles that so quickly run out of steam or the Lean Startup cycles that serve only to optimise the life out of once-great products.

There are technical reasons why the Delivery supersystem has a Discovery aspect to it (Adaptive Strategy relies on it for real-world intelligence), but that aside, the best delivery processes I’ve seen generated new ideas at every stage of the process. Two things enable that: they are designed for it, and their respective strategy activities make room for it, producing not plans and specifications but vision, outcomes, and the kind of challenges that people are well motivated to overcome.

Commitment 6. Consent – To celebrate the agency and ingenuity of others

It’s time to mention the two more models that the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation uses to flesh out the skeleton that the Viable System Model (VSM) provides. In the intersection between Mutual Trust Building and Delivery, Discovery, and Renewal (bottom middle in the diagram), is where the magic of production (and if you like, reproduction) happens.

Whether it’s the product of a strategy process or self-organised, if the organisation is large enough, it will have some structure. One highly flexible model – well capable of modelling dynamic, ad-hoc, and non-hierarchical structures – is given by Sociocracy [11] (aka Dynamic Governance, known also to Ackoff fans as Circular Hierarchy). It is purposeful collaboration and self-governance at every scale, and it is based on principles of consent. Each circle has its domain of responsibility over which it has authority; people join circles by mutual consent; circles make decisions by consent. People can join multiple circles; alignment across what could be called a strategy network is achieved through a combination of consent and participation, and it’s a dynamic process.

Things get interesting when there are multiple people in the intersections between circles. Having two people there gives you double linking – not only a mechanism for coordination, trust building, and resilience, but often a developmental (eg mentoring) opportunity also. As numbers there increase, so increases the possibility of a new circle, and with it a new, mini-scale Deliberately Adaptive Organisation with an identity, strategy, and purpose of its own.

The Deliberately Adaptive Organisation is also a Deliberately Developmental Organisation [12] (the naming is no coincidence), and it’s a very elegant combination. People have their own aspirations, plans, and strategies, and they’re adaptable! They’re capable of trusting and being trusted. Not only are they productive, most are interested in both their own self-development and in the renewal of the organisation. That symmetry is thanks to VSM again, and the Deliberately Developmental Organisation’s holistic and dare I say wholehearted [13] integration of personal and organisation development helps us make the most of it.

What next?

The Agendashift Academy’s self-paced training module on Adaptive Organisation [1] is in development and comes out over the autumn (probably in instalments), and after that I want to produce the next iteration of the first module, Leading with Outcomes: Foundation [14], whose slideware exists already in good time for Train-the-Trainer / Facilitator [15] next month. This year should also see the publication of my aforementioned fourth book, working title Patterns of generative conversations [10].

With all of that going on I’m having to restrain myself from starting my fifth book, working title Wholehearted: Up and down the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation, business agility at every scale. It lives rent-free in my head meanwhile, but never mind! My hopes for it are threefold:

  1. It will help leaders at all levels better understand the relationship between organisation and business agility, and help them to identify organisational dysfunctions and impediments to business agility that they will want to address
  2. It will give practitioners the knowledge and skills to approach the challenges of scale in ways that are both more humane and more effective than the process rollout
  3. And for both audiences, it will be the most relevant and accessible introduction to VSM they are ever likely to read

Aiming high, and why not!


[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] Idea, Obstacles, Outcomes (ldOO) (
[5] Right to Left Strategy Deployment (, and the book: Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile, Mike Burrows (2019, audiobook 2020)
[6] See Agendashift as Framework (
[7] Done (
[8] My favourite Clean Language question (2019,
[9] Clear Leadership, Gervase Bushe (2020, BMI Publishing)
[10] (Working title) Patterns of generative conversations, Mike Burrows (TBC, BMI Publishing)
[11] We the people: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, John Jr. Buck & Sharon Villenes ( Press, second edition, 2019)
[12] An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey (2016, Harvard Business Review)
[13] Our mission: Wholehearted (
[14] Leading with Outcomes: Foundation (
[15] Leading with Outcomes: Authorised Trainer and Facilitator Programmes (



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