From Status Quo to Quantum Leap
Several years ago, I was introduced to a beautiful little framework that addresses the idea that organizations have to be edged towards transformational leaps by stepping through smaller, gradual changes. Bob Fee, founder of the Graduate Program in Design Management at SCAD, introduced me to it. This is a model you can apply whenever you’re trying to make a big change. But be warned — the model helps us understand why big changes can’t happen overnight.
Bob makes this idea memorable by calling it the “A, B, C, Q” process.
“A” is status quo. This is your starting point, this is where you are now and where you’ll be if you change nothing.
“B” is a small shift. This shift is accessible to just about everybody in your organization, it’s not a huge conceptual leap. You might be familiar with this as “MAYA” — Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.
“C” is a larger shift, and it’s a shift from “B” (which pushes you further from “A”). You’ve changed once, now you make a bigger change. “C” is pushing at the edges of MAYA and may in fact provoke some backlash.
“Q” is the quantum leap forward. Maybe it’s where you were headed all along, but you could not get there before you’d been through B and C because your organization wasn’t ready yet.
Applying the Model
I think of these like the booster stages of a rocket. “A” and “B” are the big engines that get you off the ground, “C” helps you break free of the pull of gravity and get into orbit, and “Q” is the sustained orbit in which almost everything is fundamentally different than where you started.
Organizations want to be at “Q”, and in the nonprofit sector there’s constant and tremendous pressure to somehow find a way to some sort of quantum leap forward. But people — particularly large groups of people trying to work together or people under the tremendous cognitive load of poverty — can’t just jump from “A” to “Q.” If people are forced to move from “A” to “Q,” many will revert to a baseline of comfort that is far closer to where they started than where they could be, even if “Q” is objectively a better place to be. You have to spend the time in “B” and “C” to reach orbit, you can’t really skip a step.
I spend most of my time being paid to implement “Q” style initiatives for organizations starting at “A.” For internal organizational change, applying this model looks like this:
“A” is status quo
It’s the thing we think we hate enough to change, and the thing we’ll cling to when actually forced to change. It’s our starting point.
“B” is a series of small sustainable shifts.
“B” often starts with simple observation of “A.” It’s why dieters record calories, exercisers record miles and minutes, and organizations record tasks completed. Anything that helps hold up a mirror to the status quo situation is an important first step.
In my projects, which usually involve creating software solutions, even if we’re going somewhere really different we often start by establishing a series of trusted reports about the current state. Trusted reports help people in the organization agree on “how will we know when it’s right.” They help people see clearly what needs to change and, critically, what needs to stay the same. These reports help reassure people that they can keep an eye on the stuff that’s working fine so it doesn’t get disrupted.
Reports or apps or anything else that helps people track the status quo in a non-judgmental manner lets them come to their own conclusions and begin to take action. These tools hold up a mirror and provide a way for people to see the results of any actions they’re taking. When this is in place, it’s often the case that people identify what they have agency and energy to change and start making those changes independently. Very few people will move forward if they have no way of assessing how good, productive, safe, or beneficial that movement is. Many people will move independently if they do have a way of making that assessment.
In “B” you have to watch out for the scarcity of agency and energy.
- Someone who is utterly overloaded may get more overloaded when confronted with having to monitor what they already know is a mess.
- Someone who isn’t oriented toward problem solving may begin to feel hopeless if they see a list of things they think can never be solved.
- And of course if the organization’s culture undermines agency, nobody will move on anything until they’re forced to.
While frequent check-ins and a solution-oriented approach can help with the first two risks, there’s little that a project team can do to tackle the third. It’s not unusual for organizational culture to say that they value independent self-directed employees and behave in the opposite fashion. If this is the case, your quantum leap is at high risk of fizzling out on the launch pad. From a project perspective, the lack of movement in “B” is every bit as informational as movement in “B.” Everything in “B” is a useful — if sometimes unwelcome — diagnostic.
“B” can be thought of as the growing awareness and confidence building phase. It can take a long time, and in many cases the learning and action that comes out of this phase is an important end in itself. If agency, energy, and appetite for change are growing, then the organization may be ready to think about “C.” This step informs what people really consider MAYA and minimizes risk of disrupting whatever is working.
“C” is a strategic shift
It’s driven by observations and small adjustments made during phase “B.” Maybe your phase “B” lasted a few years, as you slowly, gradually chipped away at a bunch of stuff that was easy to see and fix. You realise you have some really great things that you aren’t taking advantage of — your program gets really good results in an area you never thought to measure before, or you’ve simply become efficient enough to think about growth.
At this point, making a strategic move isn’t as big a threat. While it may still be scary, it feels achievable. Most people aren’t looking back at “A” where you started and saying “we should go back to that.”
In “B” you built concreteness that helps take the fear out of the change. It’s important to keep doing that in “C” — keep answering “what, exactly, is this going to look like” and be honest if the answer is “we don’t know yet.”
Most of us have lived through the risks in “C.” They’re all about misalignment.
- The people making the strategy decisions and the people doing the work are misaligned on their interpretation of the outcomes of “B,” which erodes trust in the change process.
- The people making the strategy decisions — or in the nonprofit world, funding them — rush straight to “C” without bothering with “B,” risking change fatigue and an endless parade of “great ideas” that never get implemented. Their timing is misaligned.
- The people making the decisions about “C” are blind to everything that needs to happen to execute it, leading to a failure to get off the launchpad. Their expectations are misaligned with reality.
“C” is the let’s DO something new phase. It’s far more a decision phase than an action phase. The will to change is built in “B” and the direction of the change is established in “C” — all that’s left is to launch.
“Q” is the quantum leap forward.
It comes from the compound effects of the shifts from A to B, and B to C. It may take your organization in a different direction, it may accelerate you into something totally innovative, it may be a cultural shift or a complete re-envisioning. But it can’t occur without moving from A to B and then from B to C.
The thing that most people miss is that “Q” is the end result of a ton of work, and often several mis-steps with mistaken MAYA being offered and rejected. “Q” requires a project plan, funding, effort, energy…and a way to maintain it afterwards!
The other thing that most people miss about “Q” is that it is relative to where you started. What is obvious to some people or organizations was a brutally hard journey for others.
In your personal life, “Q” might be settling into a rhythm of eating healthier or being better with your money. If “A” for you was eating out all the time in places that are expensive and unhealthy, then you have to make your way through the rising momentum of understanding and reflecting on your patterns, changing what you can (“B), then deciding to do it for good (“C). THEN you have to maintain it (“Q”). People whose starting point is already eating healthy and saving money, their “Q” is entirely different because their “A” is entirely different.
In your organization, “Q” might be a digital transformation that eliminates paper. As with the personal example above, your “Q” is relative to your starting point.
The risks to “Q” are many. They include:
- Worrying about where other people or organizations are. You don’t know what their “A” was, so you can’t know what their “Q” looks like.
- Expecting “Q” to just happen. It is a new, sustained phase of being. Thirty years ago most of us couldn’t imagine needing or wanting all of the things our mobile devices represent. Today we pay monthly for that device. Three hundred years ago most people couldn’t imagine paying a mortgage. Today it is the American Dream. We shift our daily behaviors and our mindsets to sustain true quantum shifts. Everything else fizzles.
“Q” represents nothing less than the rewriting of our underlying assumptions about whatever it is we’re doing, and all of the ways it impacts our decisions and behaviors. We make decisions in the moment based on many things — our capacity, resources, goals, and underlying assumptions. Quantum shifts are shifts in the mental models — the deep layers of our expectations.
“Q” is the result of awareness, desire to act, and the planning and execution of the desired action. You stay in “Q” when you’ve constructed in infrastructure — the expectations, behaviors and decision patterns — to support your new mental model.