Promise theory: from configuration management to team leadership

I will talk about how I applied Promise Theory to managing a loose team of people to most of whom I don’t have a line of command.

Promise Theory was born in 2004 as Mark Burgess was looking for a model to describe CFEngine 3, the third major version of his Configuration Management system. It didn’t take long to Mark to realise that Promise Theory was suited to model any complex system, no matter of the nature of its parts (software, hardware, people, companies…) and that expressing complex systems in terms of “agents” and “promises” provided an insight in their complexity, helped design them for scalability, set realistic expectations for the outcomes.

I had used CFEngine a lot when I became the Head of IT in Telenor Digital, and thus the principles of the theory were quite clear to me. In my new role I had a lot of both operational and managerial tasks and an initial team size of one and then two. The challenge was big and borrowing help from other functions in the company was a necessity. A traditional management style was not going to work, so I decided to shape my own management style by using Promise Theory.

This talk is the report of the first year. It will introduce the audience to promise theory and the context where the idea of promise-based leadership was born, and then describe how those principles were used with a few practical, real-world examples. We’ll also talk about where our knowledge falls short and where this approach is not applicable.