Mathematics, psychology and sociology, philosophy.

Friday, March 12, 2010

What is Commitment?

2010 March 11th

I was recently asked for my opinions on the following questions:
What is a commitment? Why make them? What is important to do/be when giving your word? What is important when you are accepting another man's word? What is the best way to deal with success (kept commitments) and failure (broken commitments)?
These are common questions in a volunteer group that I participate in.
"A commitment" is simply a promise, which often engenders expectations on the part of others.
"Commitment" (in the more general sense) is the personal dimension of ownership; there is also a communal dimension of ownership which is empowerment. Total ownership cannot exist and the endeavor will fail unless both dimensions (commitment plus empowerment) are present in suitable quantities.
All commitments have a level of priority, a level of importance, and a level of urgency (see the "First Things First" part of Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People). It is not always true that one of these implies either of the other two. The biggest pitfalls in dealing with commitment issues come from getting one's priorities screwed up. This applies to individuals as well as groups. In most of the interesting situations there is no simple answer to a question like "which takes priority?".
Why make commitments? Teamwork. If you are dealing with a new challenge, the communication and successful follow-through of commitments are what enable coordinated action in groups. (It is not always required for teamwork: once the team has learned how to work together on a given type of task, they can usually get it done more efficiently by dispensing with the planning, talking and micromanaging.)
What is important when making and recieving a commitment? Complete and accurate communication. Each party has to understand what the other thinks is being committed, and this has to cover as many possible future contingencies as you can find time to discuss. Consider the downsides, that's how we got 24 men to the moon without losing any of them. Cover all the bases; don't bluff someone into committing by not telling them what your expectations are for each contingency. Jobs should be cleared thoroughly and in detail, the same way companies interview employment candidates.
I have written much more on all these issues here:
And also the following shorter articles: