The ABCs of Organizational Improvement 0

Overview 1

OHS diagram
Click to enlarge
Source: see Engelbart's Bootstrap Paradigm Map

Given the shifting nature of organizations, the increasingly complex and urgent global challenges we face, the rapidly changing marketplace, and the virtual bombardment of improvement opportunities from vendors and consultants, organizations must keep getting faster and smarter at identifying and integrating improvements into their every day operations. Organizations of all types and sizes are needing not only to improve how they work, but also to improve how they improve. Improving this 'improvement capability' should be a key element in every organization's improvement strategy.

Doug Engelbart created an important framework for this depicting this core capability which identifies three basic activities:

A Activity: 'Business as Usual'. The organization's day to day core business activity, such as customer engagement and support, product development, R&D, marketing, sales, accounting, legal, manufacturing (if any), etc. Examples: Aerospace - all the activities involved in producing a plane; Congress - passing legislation; Medicine - researching a cure for disease; Education - teaching and mentoring students; Professional Societies - advancing a field or discipline; Initiatives or Nonprofits - advancing a cause.

B Activity: Improving how we do that. Improving how A work is done, asking 'How can we do this better?' Examples: adopting a new tool(s) or technique(s) for how we go about working together, pursuing leads, conducting research, designing, planning, understanding the customer, coordinating efforts, tracking issues, managing budgets, delivering internal services. Could be an individual introducing a new technique gleaned from reading, conferences, or networking with peers, or an internal initiative tasked with improving core capability within or across various A Activities.

C Activity: Improving how we improve. Improving how B work is done, asking 'How can we improve the way we improve?' Examples: improving effectiveness of B Activity teams in how they foster relations with their A Activity customers, collaborate to identify needs and opportunities, research, innovate, and implement available solutions, incorporate input, feedback, and lessons learned, run pilot projects, etc. Could be a B Activity individual learning about new techniques for innovation teams (reading, conferences, networking), or an initiative, innovation team or improvement community engaging with B Activity and other key stakeholders to implement new/improved capability for one or more B activities.

These activities are ongoing in any healthy organization. However, the current means of improving how we work are not adequate for the scale and rate of change we face today. Most organizations need to acquire much more effective ways of identifying and assimilating dramatic improvements on a continuing basis. They need to get better at identifying challenges and opportunities, understanding requirements, surveying, evaluating, selecting, integrating, developing, testing, and applying the solutions throughout their organizations and networks. And they need to get better and better at deploying the solutions into rapidly shifting organizational and demographic targets – identifying suitable pilot groups, running and evaluating the pilot results, learning how much to introduce, how quickly, how to overcome barriers, and how to quickly incorporate lessons learned. This is all C activity work.

In summary, here's one way of characterizing the A, B, and C Activities:

A: Improving your customer's world with great products and services

B: Improving product cycle time, quality, and cost-effectiveness
    What if you could produce more, smarter, faster and cheaper?

C: Improving improvement cycle time and quality
    What if you could improve more of your organization, smarter, faster, and cheaper?

The ABC Opportunity 2

This ABC Model reveals several high-leverage opportunities:

  1. Turbo charge the C Activity
  2. Exploit the Bootstrapping Leverage
  3. Activate Innovation "Neural Networks"
  4. Amplify efforts in a C Community

Turbo Charge the C Activity 3

To help B activities get faster and smarter at innovating and transforming your organization, be proactive about the C activity in your organization. That's where the magic is, your key point of leverage to shift the organization from an incremental improvement curve to an exponential improvement curve. Begin by launching a modest C initiative to embark on this task, with the first assignment to study Bootstrapping Innovation, network with others doing the same to amplify results, working toward a C Community (see below). Ideally you will look toward appointing a Chief Innovation Officer, even part time, and/or a C level innovation circle formed up like a quality circle of representative stakeholders, with a modest budget and staff time to begin exploring and charting the best path for your organization on a regular basis. This would include engaging representative B activity stakeholders to identify needs and opportunities, and networking outside the organization with other pioneering C activities.

Extra "Bootstrapping" Leverage 4

OHS diagram
Click to enlarge
Source: see Engelbart's Bootstrap Paradigm Map

By definition, the C Activity is focused on improving B's collective capability to improve A's collective capability. Or, for the innovation-centric, the C activity is focused on innovating B's capability to innovate A's capability, including, and most importantly, A's capability to innovate products and services for/with the customer, in meaningful ways. If you remove the labels, this boils down to one important cross-cutting capability -- innovating how we work together to solve important problems, measured in terms of our Collective IQ. For example, all three activity levels of the organization depend to a large extent on how effectively they can:

  • anticipate important needs and opportunities;

  • create and deploy innovative solutions;

  • incorporate input, feedback and lessons learned.

Boosting Collective IQ in the A, B, and C work would boost both the product cycle and the improvement cycle simultaneously, thus providing a multiplier effect for compounding ROI, or in Doug Engelbart's parlance, bootstrapping leverage. Before these capability improvements are deployed into an A Activity, they would be rigorously assessed, road tested, and integrated operationally as a C Activity, with more streamlined versions implemented within the appropriate B Activities, and from there into the A Activity, with significant benefits reverberating up and down this accelerative innovation chain. Providers who can expertly harness what they provide become smarter, faster providers (using "provider" loosely here, since our model espouses outside innovation where the A Activities' customers are the target customers of your organization, B's customers are the participating A Activities, and C's customers are the participating B Activities).

An Innovation "Neural Network" 5

OHS diagram
Click to enlarge
Source: see Engelbart's Bootstrap Paradigm Map

Networking all those who should be part of the solution is an integral part of the bootstrapping strategy, which the ABC Model brings into focus:

  • opening broad two-way vertical channels of participation and exchange between C and B activities, between B and A activities and, for provider organizations, between A activities and the organization's customers;

  • as well as horizontal channels, for example A activities cooperating in a joint B Activity, B activities cooperating in a joint C activity, and C activities cooperating wither partner organizations forming an alliance or "C Community" (as shown below). An important role of B Activities is to network A Activities in joint collaboration, and help them network end customers in joint collaboration. Similarly an important role of C is to network B Activities in joint collaboration, and help them apply results in their respective networks.

These participatory innovtion networks set up a cross-cutting reverberating "neural network" of Collective IQ innovation throughout and across organizations (see also Networked Improvement Communities (NICs).

A "C Community" 6

OHS diagram
Click to enlarge
Source: see Engelbart's Bootstrap Paradigm Map

C Activities from a wide range of enterprises can join forces in a cooperative C Community to collaborate on common activities. This is feasible because most C Activity is generic, not proprietary. It is highly desirable because creating a vibrant pilot environment to support this work would otherwise be very costly. By pooling resources, members can spread the risk and spend less to get more – including attracting resources that would otherwise not be available – thus freeing up more internal resources to further invest in their proprietary B and A Activities.

Joining forces is also necessary for dealing appropriately with the increasingly complex interoperability requirements between platforms and between enterprises. For instance, understanding the requirements for an open hyperdocument system (OHS), developing a procurement approach for prototypical OHS tools to support planned pilot usage among Community Members, coordinating the planning and operation of such pilots, and integrating the lessons learned seems the most promising way to yield the desired results. And coordinating the requirements for interfacing or integrating applications software and utilities can only be accomplished by extensive cooperation among user organizations and vendors.

Such a "C Community" initiative would provide a common focus for user organizations, vendors, consultants, government agencies, and universities. Operating as an advanced pilot or living prototype of its work, its results would be directly transferable to member organizations.

A "C Community" offers the most direct, high-leverage, cost-effective path for bootstrapping organizations. But individual organizations can get started on their own, even before an Initiative is formally launched. They can begin by forming an explicit C Activity, headed by a responsible high-level executive, and staffed and advised by stakeholders from representative B Activities, to integrate this bootstrapping strategy with their own strategic planning efforts. They can start planning for selected exploratory pilots, using off-the-shelf hyperdocument systems, and begin to test out the concepts and strategies outlined in Doug's Vision Highlights and A How To Guide for Bootstrapping the Innovation.


In Summary: A key to the long-term vitality and competitive edge for an organization will be to get better and better at improving itself. The sooner organizations launch on this strategic path, the sooner the benefits can be achieved world-wide. Where will your organization stand? Where will your nation stand?

Further Inquiry 7