The ABCs of Organizational Improvement 0

Overview 1

In this era of accelerating change, and the shifting nature of challenges and opportunities we face, organizations of all types and sizes are needing to put more attention into how they evolve. This involves not only improving the way they work, but also improve how they improve the way they work. Improving this 'improvement capability' should be a key element in every organization's improvement strategy.

Whichever you are improving, keep in mind that since its inception, every organization has already been evolving its vision, methodoligies, organizational structures and roles, paradigms, culture, tools and language of the trade, as well as training and enculturating in the above. The organization operating within that ecosystem is what makes it capable (or not). The organization evolves by changing elements of their capability ecosystem.

Doug Engelbart created the ABC model to bring into focus how an organization organizes to facilitate and accelerate that evolution:

A Activity: 'Business as Usual'.
How the organization does business today, its day-to-day business activity, how it functions in its capability ecosystem as it is today. This is your baseline. The A Activity spans an organization's customer outreach, engagement and support, how they develop new products and services, they go about marketing, sales, manufacturing, plus any back office activities such as accounting, legal, etc. Examples: how a Tech startup is developing its first prototype; how Nonprofits advance their cause; how Aerospace produces a new plane; how Congress passes legislation; how Medical Research discovers a cure for disease; how the Education arena teaches, mentors, organizes learning environments; how Professional Societies advance a field or discipline; how Networked Initiatives engage and advance their shared mission.

B Activity: Improving how we work at A.
Improving how A work gets done, asking 'How can we do this better?' Not what they do, but how they do it. Examples: adopting a new tool(s) or technique(s) for how they go about coordinating their efforts, pursuing leads, conducting research, designing, planning, understanding the customer, tracking issues, managing budgets, delivering internal services. Could be an individual coming up with a better idea, or introducing a new tools or technique gleaned from a conference or from networking with peers or from the web, or an internal initiative tasked with improving core capability within or across various A Activities. Could be an ongoing intiative to adopt Lean, Agile, or Design Thinking. Just as the A Activity is based on how its ecosystem of capabilities evolved to date, so too the B Activity is capable and effective (or not) based on how it has evolved to date. In fact most B Activity is approached in an ad hoc way, 'once and done' -- either a superficial change across the organization, or deeper improvement within one small area. Effectively taking pot shots at the capability ecosystem.

Enter the C Activity: Improving how we improve.
Improving how B work is done, asking 'How can we improve the way we improve?' What aspects of the B Activity ecosystem might be improved? Examples: improving effectiveness of B Activities in engaging their stakeholders, identifying needs and opportunities, coming up with solutions, piloting those solutions, evaluating and incorporating feedback, pivoting, etc. Could be a B Activity individual asking 'How can we do this better?, or getting inspired by reading, conferences, networking, or a new initiative engaging with B Activity and other key stakeholders to start improving capability within a target B Activity. In most organizations, however, the C Activity is barely a blip on the radar.

These ABC activities are already ongoing in any healthy organization, it's how they function and evolve. For most organizations, there's always room for improvement, but more importantly the current means of improving how they work are not adequate for the scale and rate of change in the challenges and opportunities we face today. In other words, their B Activity is not up to the task. So the first order of business in getting the organization on a more promising trajectory is to step up a proper C Activity, to take a fresh, strategic look at how to shift the B Activity onto a more promising trajectory. How is the organization identifying challenges and opportunities, identifying which capabilities to improve, understanding how capabilities improve, understanding requirements, surveying, evaluating, selecting, integrating, implementing, testing, and applying improved ways of working throughout their teams, organizations, and networks. And what are the best strategies for improving how they identify and deploy improvements into rapidly shifting organizational targets in the context of rapidly shifting political, economic and demographic landscapes – 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 meant to improve both the B Activity and the C Activity capability ecosystems.

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

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

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

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

The ABC Opportunity 3

The ABC model offers a useful lens to observe how that evolution occurs, where the levers are to evolve better, faster, and where the points of greatest leverage can be found to facilitate faster, smarter, more cost-effective evolution into the future. In fact, the 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 through a C Community

Turbo Charge the C Activity 4

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 - study Your Bootstrapping Brilliance Toolkit: network, with a core group of stakeholders if you can, map your ABCs, identify which capabilities to improve and augment, identify pilot project(s) to kickstart the improvement, network with others doing similar work to amplify results, working toward a C Community (see below). Ideally you will look toward appointing a C Activity 'officer' to lead the effort even part time, with a C level innovation network 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 5

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 and identiry 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" 6

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 innovation 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" 7

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 8

  Helpful Resources 8a

  • Your Bootstrapping Brilliance Toolkit - putting the ABC approach to work in your team, initiative, or organization 8a1
  • A Vision - highlights of Doug's Vision for the Future, connecting the dots 8a2
  • A Strategy - a design strategy for Bootstrapping the ABCs, explore key concepts; makes the case for accelerating the evolution of our initiatives, organizations, and/or society to their highest potential. 8a3
  • Bootstrap "Paradigm Map" - see how the above plays in the overarching strategic framework and interactive slide deck 8a4
  • The Engelbart Academy - watch Doug presenting his strategic vision to a variety of audiences (it's free) 8a5
  • Key Concepts Glossary - key concepts defined in a narrative format 8a6

  Press 8b

  Papers 8c