TENSION: Commitment vs Adaptability

My depictions of complexity, or complex systems, or systems in general tend to center around tradeoffs, compromises, sacrifices, & tensions. It's about holding multiple (possibly) true things in your hands, knowing at some time...you'll have to drop some of them for the sake of keeping others.

I might hold a slightly different take on this than the textbooks & the academics. Maybe it's because I'm self-taught in this arena & don't possess the vocabulary, didn't read their books, or don't understand the vernacular of the idols. Regardless, I'm quite OK anticipating some do-nothing keyboard consultant beating me up over my misunderstanding of the topic...& over-simplification of that which they understand so much better than me. (The vulnerability is the ultimate tradeoff of publishing a public blog.)

COMMITMENT  <--->  ADAPTABILITY is a significant tension. 

When I think of commitment, I think of marriage. Two (2) people committing themselves to each other. For life. Forever. The concept of commitment is the putting together or binding of things. In some regards, it's the submission to or binding of a pledge or purpose. It's the saying of Yes to something, at the cost of saying No to other things. 

So what's the tradeoff?

Well, gals. It's gonna be the same dude every morning, day, & night. The sacrifice is all those other men out there. You're giving that up. 

It's the saying of Yes to something, at the cost of saying No to other things. 

When I think of adaptability, I think of maintaining options. Like some handsome stud walking into a bar checking out all the beautiful available women in the club. 

But what's this risk?

A cycle of meaningless relationships. Possibly emptiness. Maybe syphilis. 

It's the saying of Maybe to lots of things. 


Let's look at decisions more generally. 

One (1) of the aspects of decisions that I talk about is optionality. That's the attribute of a decision that allows for some degree of alternatives, adjustment, reversibility, or its ability to be "undone." 

People who are adaptive understand optionality. It's a vital trait when operating in complexity where an absolute route is unknown or unknowable. A decision with optionality is more a probe or experiment than a full-on charge. It's dipping your toe into the pool before jumping in. It's peeking or slowing up around the corner before bumping into a co-worker.

"But Lou, you can have a commitment to a cause, but maintain adaptability on how to reach it!"


Take a look at The Illinois Model tiering of decisions:

  1. Purposes / Intentions
  2. Goals / Objectives / Missions
  3. Strategies 
  4. Tactics 
  5. Techniques

Don't get too caught up in the labels. Appreciate it for the concept of prioritization. 

  • Start at the top. When you ask HOW, your answer (or options) should be found below.
  • Start at the bottom. When you ask WHY, your answer (or reasons) should be found above.
  • Start anywhere. That's your WHAT. Then ask WHY or HOW. You can navigate an endless spectrum of decision-making, abstraction, planning. It's recursive & fractal. Like a set of Russian nesting dolls. 

There is no vertical Commitment-Adaptability tension; the tensions are only horizontal within the same "tier." And there must be a "bias towards commitment" in the tier above that in which you are considering. The point is that you can commit to a Strategy while holding adaptive Tactics, but not the other way around; the firmness must lay above! You can't hold multiple Goals but only a singular Strategy; it doesn't work that way. 

If you determine your Goal must change, you are sliding from commitment towards adaptability, then maybe back to commitment. And if or when you make this slide, everything below it also changes!! 

"But Lou, back to marriage! What about those polygamists with two (2) wives?!?"

Poor bastards! But you make a great point! 

It's not a struggle between ONE (1) versus MANY. Tensions are often about spectrums. Like a tug-of-war where opposites apply strengths against the competition...but can find themselves in a momentary static standoff - where while not moving... one (1) team maintains an advantage.

There's a difference between juggling five (5) overlapping options & juggling two (2) distinct alternatives. And this goes to show that not all options are equal & that this is less of a linear tension than maybe I made it out to be earlier. 

There are many flavors of options. Optionality is not just about the number of alternatives, but also "measured" in the breadth of what futures they might cover. (I mean, think of the optionality of a bisexual person: roughly double of any hetero- or homo-sexual person!) 


High optionality gives you adaptability; it's suited for uncertainty. Commitment is for confidence; when you know that choice is matched well for what lays ahead. 

  • The less certain you are about the situation or the future, the more you should slant towards available options. (Think about the left half of Cynefin.)
  • The more certain you are about the situation or the future, the less options you should hold. (Right half of Cynefin.)

If you had a crystal ball into the stock market, you'd be a fool to hold a diverse portfolio. Right? 

I believe that understanding this tension between adaptability & commitment is necessary, but any sort of bias on the spectrum should come after an appreciation for:

  • in what sort of "domain" (Cynefin) you are, &
  • at which decision "tier" (The Illinois Model) you are.

"But Lou, my wife & I have an open relationship - where we have the best of both worlds!"

Yeah OK...


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a detective supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. He's focused on multi-jurisdictional crime patterns & intelligence, through organic working groups compromised of investigators & analysts from a variety of agencies. With a passion for training, he studies human performance, decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, & adaptability. In 2021, he went back to college (remotely!), in hopes to finally finish his undergrad degree from the University of Illinois - Gies College of Business. Follow Lou on LinkedIn, & also the LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model


Popular posts from this blog

Presentation Hack: Your Last Slide(s)

Presentation Hack: "For those of you who don't know me..."

The Generalist versus The Specialist