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Over 400 Articles To Help Elevate Your Compliance

Should Compliance Manage Obligations or Promises?

Promises might be your super power to help you meet all your obligations,

Obligaitons or Promises?
Obligaitons or Promises?

Obligations and promises are tightly connected and hold prominent positions in law particularly when it comes to agreements and contracts. Through this legal lens a promise binds someone to an obligation when an intention is declared and witnessed.

Intuitively, many will know that telling others of your intentions strengthens your resolve to follow through with the obligation. We also know that when intentions are voluntarily made our resolve is stronger than when coerced or forced.

It seems the process of making promises positively affects are ability to keep them.

It's interesting that compliance focuses much of its attention on identifying, tracking, and auditing obligations. Very little consideration is given to the other side of the equation: making, tracking, and managing promises.

In this article we look at the research by Mark Burgess and what he calls "Promise Theory." to see how it might help organizations better meet all their obligations by keeping their promises.

Perhaps, promises might be the super power compliance needs?

Let's find out.

Promise Theory

Mark Burgess (a theoretical physicist) in 2006 proposed what he calls Promise Theory. This theory was developed to deal with autonomous distributed systems although its usefulness extends much further.

Promise Theory is defined as a "model of voluntary cooperation between individual, autonomous actors or agents who publish their intentions to one another in the form of promises.”

Promise Theory

Promise theory is based on these concepts:

  • Intention – this is the desired outcome.

  • Promise – when an intention is publicly declared to an audience it becomes a promise.

  • Imposition – an attempt to induce cooperation from another agent (i.e. implant an intention)

  • Obligation – an imposition with a cost or penalty for non-compliance

  • Assessment – a determination of whether or not a promise has been kept or not.

  • Agent - the person or thing making a promise. This can be an inanimate object serving as a proxy for human intent. Agents cannot promise for anyone else.

Promise theory changes the focus from managing obligations to managing promises.

Focus on Obligations

Obligation theories assume that agents choose behaviour based on an obligation to follow the rules. We are obligated to take a certain action.

Compliance often focuses on obligations where impositions are made that are associated with a penalty or cost.

Systems designed using obligation theory use imperative control focused on how things should happen.

Focus on Promises

Promise Theory on the other hand offers a different approach focusing on intention and outcome. The behaviour of agents is voluntary and have autonomy to act as needed to satisfy their obligations.

Systems designed to support promise theory use declarative control in the form of what should happen, not how.

Instead of mandatory behaviours to create compliance attention is on voluntary cooperation.

Why is Promise Theory Important For Compliance?

Promise Theory offers a way for organizations to conceptualize obligations more holistically to better address challenges facing compliance today.

Divergence of Obligations

Traditionally, many of today's obligations arise from taking a reductive approach to compliance which in turn results in a divergence of attention and action creating greater complexity and uncertainty particularly with respect to contribution towards outcomes.

Divergence of Obligations

Tracking each action back to an obligation is hard enough and next to impossible to connect back to outcomes. This divide and conquer approach is unable to keep up.

Promise Theory on the other hand, offers a way for obligations to converge satisfied by promise fulfillment systems similar to a services model approach used in healthcare, IT, and other service based industries.

Instead of a divergence of actions, a promise-based approach creates the opportunity for actions to converge which reduces complexity and uncertainty in meeting desired outcomes.

Divergence - Convergence

Unmatched Obligations

Many organizations may do a good job of tracking obligations but fall short when it comes to managing promise to ensure obligations are met. They have the obligation but not the corresponding promises to go along with it.

Obligations Need Promises

Promise Theory provides a framework to engineer compliance. It helps organizations provide assurance by ensuring that every obligation has a connected promise.

Unmatched obligations to promises may be a better indicator of future compliance performance than simply auditing actions.

Lack of Resilience

Compliance systems based on a divide and conquer approach become more numerous, complicated and fragile over time. These systems are unable to keep up and as result increase the level of uncertainty and corresponding risk.

Promise based systems by their very nature are more adaptive by focusing on outcomes. They have better chance of delivering the original intent rather than only following a particular rule. They also can leverage capabilities to reduce cost and improve effectiveness.

Unsupported Obligations

Many of today's obligations go beyond rule-based obligations and now include performance and outcome-based designs. Pursuit of these objectives require a greater degree of cooperation and coordination not found in many organizations, particularly those that follow a command and control regime.

Promise-based systems are better suited to advance goals associated with goal-based regulations and standards where obligations are voluntary and cooperation is needed.

Unmitigated and Preventable Risk

Obligation-based systems tend to assume certainty of the conditions and what actions to execute.

However, promise-based systems are inherently goal-seeking and when implemented properly should incorporate risk-based principles to improve the certainty of achieving the desired outcome. In practice, they contend with uncertainty better because they assume that it exists right from the start.


For compliance to keep up with the growth in obligations it must adopt a holistic-systems approach.

In essence, compliance will never be able to build enough controls and manage them at that level necessary to meet all of its obligations. Compliance will do better if it manages systems that deliver promises based on Promise Theory.

Application of this theory goes against traditional command and control structures found in many if not most computer systems and common management practices today (although this is changing with the advent of generative AI).

However, when organizations adopt this approach it results in systems that are more sustainable, predictable, and more certain of making progress towards targeted compliance outcomes, than following rules every could.

Even the process of making promises strengthens an organization's resolve to follow through on its obligations. Making promises creates a moral bond on top of any legal ones that may exist.

This moral connection may well be the super power that helps ethical organizations meet all their obligations. You might say it doubles their resolve and their chances of compliance success. A double-helix for compliance.





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