What you Want is Commitment — But What is it?

When Daryl Conner put together his Managing Organizational Change (MOC) methodology he included discussion on commitment, since commitment to change is what is absolutely necessary to move from the status quo or present state to a desired future state.  Later, when we put together Managing at the Speed of Change we included the commitment curve and an explanation as to how to use it in consulting work.

A comment on Managing at the Speed of Change:  Is remains an outstanding primer for those wanting to know the basics of organizational change.  Many other books and articles have since been published, but Managing at the Speed of Change should be on every manager’s and every consultant’s bookshelf.

In managing change it is essential to not only describe desired state which could be a vision, an end state, a future state or simply a description as where the organization needs to go.  The more detail, the less resistance to change and the greater the ease of building commitment to get there.  That said, a description of the desired state is not enough. (See an earlier post: You Can’t Just Say ‘Fix It’ )

Since people and organizations are always in some form of status quo or present state, we have to make the case for change in order to get their commitment to leave or change the status quo and venture through a process to get to the desired state.  In the beginning of any change effort people are more committed to the present than they are to the future.  Why?  Because even if the present state is dysfunctional or uncomfortable, they are comfortable with it because they know how to operate within it.  Even though change might be desirable, there is a danger is leaving the security of what is known into some desired state that is more unknown than known.

The consultant or manager needs to sell the desired state while simultaneously de-selling the status quo: Why do we have to change?  What are the benefits?  What if we don’t change…what is the cost versus what it will cost to change?  Making the case for change is an art form which will be covered in another posting, but for now we will look at commitment to change.

The commitment process is also a sales process.  Looking at the commitment curve we start with making contact.  If that contact is successful we achieve awareness.  If we do not, we keep contacting until we do.

Contacting is best done in as many ways as possible:  email, posters, announcements, all-hands meetings, celebrations…any means to bring attention that something is going to happen is the goal.

Once you have awareness, you can begin to give more and more information to develop understanding.  To be successful in gaining commitment, that understanding needs to become positive understanding of the change and the need to make it happen.  If it is negative understanding you need to continue to provide more and more information and to engage with the people or constituencies to help them understand and see the change as a positive and necessary thing to do.

Once you have achieved positive understanding you have not gained commitment.  This is the first big mistake leaders and managers make:  taking positive understanding for commitment.  Until you ask them to do something you have not crosses the commitment threshold and have not been successful in getting them involved.

There are four levels of commitment with only three applicable to organizational change:

  • Installation
  • Adoption
  • Institutionalization
  • Internalization


This is the lowest form of commitment as you are only asking your target to try something.  Try this to see if it will work.  If it does not work, we will try something else.  I call this a fill or kill option.  Commitment is easy since you are only asking for a trial.

Take the case of new software.  You have a handful of programs and ask the IT department to see which ones will work on your system.  Nothing more, for now.  They boot them up and you now know which ones have potential.


Higher than installation, at this level you are not only asking your target to try something to see if it will work, but to live with it for a period of time to determine if it will do what we want it to do.

Continuing with the software analogy, you ask the IT department to use the programs that will work on your system to determine which ones work best for the work at-hand.  This will require more time, will disrupt their current work and the IT department will owe you an analysis on their findings.

You are asking for a higher level of commitment and need to make the case as to why you need this work done and what it might be leading to as well as contributing to the organization.


Both installation and adoption have reversibility:  you are not stuck with the results.  The work are trials, tests to see what might work, not work or be worth using in the organization.

Institutionalization is commitment into an area or enterprise that is not reversible.  Bringing  in enterprise systems such as SAP or Baan cannot be done on a trial basis.  Once you commit to it, you have to live with it and make it work.  These enterprise systems are highly impactful, influencing just about every way that work is done thereby affecting people and processes.  Try it?  No.  You can go to like organizations to see how it is working with them, but you need to develop this high commitment without return or retreat to bring it in and make it work.


This is the highest level of commitment and is not practical to ask for or demand this level within an organization.  Internalization is a commitment whereby people believe that this is the best option and that they will live with it forever.

We do ask for commitment in interpersonal relationships and in religions, but this level is not practical for organizations, although there will be people who do have internalized commitments to aspects of the status quo.  These are people deeply committed to the way things are and their entrenchment to the present state will require a very pointed and intense effort to get them to commit to change.

So as managers, leaders and consultants, look at what level of commitment you want from key players, key constituencies, people and organizational parts.  Those that are most impacted by the change will need to be more highly committed than those who are not.  Human Resources is not heavily impacted by an enterprise system coming into the organization unless a people package is included in it.  But IT and procurement are target center, having to make huge adjustments to such a system.

So given the different levels of desired and required commitment, communications, frequency of contact, details of the change and inclusion are all tailored to people and organizational entities.

Just as another example, take these stages of building commitment and think about dating and seeking a partner, buying an automobile or getting a pet.  Think about how businesses and sales people use these stages in getting you to make an institutionalized level of commitment.

And you be successful applying this model.

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