If you're planning a major change should you start with a diagnostic of today or the destination
Once I was leading an executive team through the process of defining an organizational structure capable of achieving their ambitious long-term goals. As I was planning the roadmap for this initiative I was immediately confronted with a thorny issue familiar to most people
doing this kind of work. From which end do I attack the question? Do I zoom out and start from the “destination” (“big picture” vision) and work back to the reality of today, or do I zoom in, starting with a detailed diagnostic of where we are today, and build up to the “destination”?
In having both succeeded and failed at answering this question, I’ve concluded that there is no on-size-fits-all answer. However there are some clear guiding principles, and cautions, that I’ve found to be invaluable in helping make the right decision. First, the principles:
Go Top Down: if the “desired state” (vision) is thought to be completely different than where you are today, start with the macro view (“the destination” or vision). Clearly, it doesn’t make sense to start off entangled in the “mire of today” if you’re going somewhere completely different (it doesn’t absolve you from having to bridge the gap, but it comes later). In other words, if you’re fundamentally shifting the paradigm, “beginning a new chapter,” or leaving the “past in the past” this is the way to go. Where does this approach typically make sense? Startups, turnarounds, transformation breakthroughs, new initiatives, etc.
Go Bottom Up: if the progress you want to make builds upon, extends, or even complements the “current state,” start from the detail and work up. In this case it’s important to have a detailed understanding (diagnostic) of where you are today so that you can continue the journey and trajectory that has been started. There’s no need to build from scratch if you already have a solid foundation. Rather you’ll want to take time to make sure you understand and leverage it as much as possible. Where does this approach make sense? Typically in areas where you’re improving on the current paradigm – process improvement, annual strategy reviews, cost optimization, budget planning, etc.
So what happens if you get it backwards? There are risks…
If you substitute the “bottom up” for the “top down” approach you’re basically assuming that the keys to future transformation lie in the current reality (many do this!) and will define the vision based on today’s activity. The danger is that you could be spending significant time essentially re-organizing the “deck chairs” (actually preserving the same problems) when you should actually be building a new boat.
On the other hand if you substitute the “top down” for the “bottom up” approach you’re building the future independently of you’re current foundation (assets, ongoing initiatives, etc.) and potential constraints that come with it. The danger is to build something completely disconnected from current reality while ignoring, or even destroying, much of the good raw material you already have in your hands.
In summary, it’s clear that neither approach is superior to the other. Both are effective ways to make progress. The secret lies in knowing which to use when. To give you clarity in applying the principles and making the right decision, take time to think about two fundamental questions. First, what is the magnitude of change you want to accomplish? Second, where are you starting from?