Designing for the ‘to-be state’


September 22nd, 2014

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What I’ve found in the organisation design work that I do that there’s a great desire from stakeholders to map the current, ‘as-is’ state and define the end ‘to-be’ state. It seems to provide some kind of comfort level they know where they are – admittedly, sometimes worth finding out, and they agree where they want to go. Then we work out the gap closing activities. It is beautifully structured, and you can see lots of images with various models for doing this as-is to to-be work.

For a good while I did this activity with my clients until I realised that spending time on it was not that useful. We seemed to get mired down in ‘swim lanes’, semantic arguments (aka wordsmithing), and developing chunky plans that now bring the Peter Drucker quote to mind. “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”  We often seemed to shy away from the hard work bit.

I discovered a different tack on the as-is/to-be approach: the maturity model. Indeed, I’m currently working with one now. It describes the outcomes of the organisation reaching ‘maturity’ once it has reached level four in each of the attributes of leadership, values and behaviours, roles and structures, capability, planning, and governance. (For images of various maturity models look here). I’m using it to help an organisation transform from being ‘analogue’ to being ‘digital’.

This model was discussed in a recent workshop where one of the participants raised the following points:

Whilst the end state [of the model] probably defines what an ideal organisation might look like (whether that be a digital organisation or not).  I can’t tell if it’s the right roadmap for us.  For example, does this model take into account the fact that we are attempting to evolve to a digital organisation, whilst having to maintain a huge legacy infrastructure at the same time? And if it does, what are the constraints/dependencies for each of the roadmap characteristics? Is it right that we remove all silos (probably), or is it appropriate to keep some in place? Is ‘leadership by everyone’ the right model in all circumstances? How do we ensure we take everybody to the ‘behaviours’ that are appropriate for them in their particular circumstance rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach?

I think this is a pretty good challenge – is a ‘maturity’ model useful or as effective (or ineffective) as as-is/to-be activity. I’m not sure and am tempted to retreat to my ‘all models are wrong, some models are useful’ position – a topic of a recent blog of mine but maybe that’s a cowardly response.

So taking another look at both models I had two reactions. First they have a place helping people reflect on and discuss the way the organisation could/should move – which is exactly what happened in the workshop I just mentioned. The participants used the model as a basis for discussing the validity of the ‘end state’ it implied.

That’s a double-edged sword. It’s great to have the discussion but to take the view that what is described as ‘to-be’ or ‘mature’ is the end state is not sensible and maybe that’s where both the ‘to-be’ and the ‘maturity’ models fall down. They imply that something stated will actually happen and take it as a target to achieve. This is unrealistic. Organisations are in a constant state of flux. There is no way that a much worked on ‘to-be’ state will be achieved in the way predicted or desired. The described state should be viewed as a direction rather than as a target and should come with a statement to that effect.

My second reaction was to see a paradox in the ‘maturity’ model we’re working with. Actually, it describes a direction towards ‘immaturity’ in organisational terms. Like many organisations, we’re attempting a direction from analogue to digital that requires us to organize like a start-up . Writing about this Eric McNulty observes that:

Although established companies can’t afford to tear themselves down and start all over again, they can use the principles in the book Startup Leadership  to analyse vulnerabilities, guide reorganisation, collaborate, innovate, and become more nimble in the face of fast-changing conditions.

Writing in a similar vein from a different perspective Nilofer Merchant, author of 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era,  notes that

The companies thriving today are operating by a new set of rules — Social Era rules. Companies like REI, Kickstarter, Kiva, Twitter, Starbucks — they get it. They live it. And to them, notions like distributing power to everyone, working in extended community to get things done, or allowing innovation to happen anywhere and everywhere are, well, ridiculously obvious. But too many major companies — Bank of America, Sports Authority, United Airlines, Best Buy, and Walmart to name just a few — that need to get it, don’t.

What’s interesting about her list is that the companies she mentions as thriving today are much younger than the companies she suggests are not thriving.   So as I mentioned, perhaps old established, mature organisations need to be working towards gaining the characteristics of immature start-ups?

Another way of looking at this idea is to think that old established organisations are working to ‘analogue’ patterns of structure, leadership, etc. and that younger organisations are working to ‘digital’ patterns. There’s a useful graphic in a white paper Building a Digital Culture  that shows the attributes of each. Note that by adding in two steps between the left hand side of ‘analogue’ and the right hand side of ‘digital’ and you have an almost perfect immaturity model! (But don’t feel obliged to do that.)

If long established organisations should be heading towards the attributes of a young/immature organisation what is the best method for heading there? It’s not through a blueprint of a ‘to-be’ state with a structured ‘roadmap’ for getting there. I like the thought, again from Eric McNulty,  that it is through seeking to ‘establish and continually refine clarity in three critical areas: purpose, values, and performance’, using ‘social’ techniques like crowdsourcing both to develop and then keep these attributes living, honed, and demonstrated.

The organization I’m working with has a purpose and a set of organisational values – in need of refreshing but the crowd could do this. It does have performance standards – which need moving on from an analog world to a digital world.  (Watch the video Neuroscience shows why numbers based HR management is obsolete).  And, as importantly has a good set of guiding principles designed to head everything in the same transformative direction.

What better way to answer the questions posed in the email I received (quoted above) than to immediately start using the tools and techniques of the start-up immature ‘social’ organization: collaborating, giving everyone a voice, testing and learning in a continuous improvement cycle, setting new rules around performance and expectations, trusting each other, and so on. Wouldn’t this be a better way to go than to spend time developing vision statements, roadmaps, detailed project plans, with a select few and then urging people to ‘buy-in’?

What’s your view?


Naomi StanfordDr Naomi Stanford is a consultant, teacher and author.  her work as a consultant is in organisation design and development in all its manifestations.  She is the author of: Organization Design, The Collaborative Approach, The Economist Guide to Organisation Design, Organisation culture: Getting it Right (also an Economist publication) and Organizational Health.


This blog post original appeared on Naomi’s website.