The Last Target Operating Model You’ll Ever Need™

I first wrote this as a comment on Joel Bailey’s excellent blog post titled ‘This thing called agile might kill us all’ but thought it worth re-hashing and expanding here.

For context, Joel writes about “working for a big high street bank. The brief is to redesign the ‘end to end mortgage experience’. The timescale is to reach a business case, with a roadmap of delivery waves to achieve minimum viable product, within 6 weeks. ”

He floats the idea of a Target Customer Experience as counterpoint to that change management staple, the Target Operating Model.

I’ve had recent experience with a “TOM”, attempting to intercept with an agile, digital project. It left me puzzled, and I’m grateful to Joel’s post for helping me clarify my unease.

In case you haven’t come across one before, the TOM is a Thing in the world of “change management,” defined on Wikipedia as:

a description of the desired state of the operations of a business. Typically a TOM also includes the roadmap over time that specifies what the company needs to do to move from the “as is” to the “to be”.

For the service designers among you, a typical TOM covers similar turf to Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, only with fewer sticky notes and more spreadsheets.

As an aside on his nascent agile project, Joel writes about the toll it takes on participants:

someone needs to write a Marxist evaluation of agile. Yes the outcome is better and it’s all very sexy and new and ‘oh so right’, but I suspect the cost on the worker is high as essentially it speeds production and works the asset of production (you and me) harder.

… which immediately set me thinking that if people are using “agile” to mean doing the same process only faster, even at the risk of burning out their people, then they’re Doing It Wrong.

I reached for the 8th of the Agile Manifesto Principles:

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

And that’s when I realised the real challenge to peddlers of TOMs and the like: agile transformation isn’t a one-off thing that you do to get from A to B – it’s a continuous culture of iterative improvement.

Agile organisations succeed through sensing, not planning.

  • They are in touch with their actual customer experience (not just some brand fantasy). This is the dirty secret of much Target Operating Model work. A warts-and-all “as is” picture is far more valuable than any amount of “to be” prognostication – but even if that’s what executives secretly wish for, no consultant can afford to say out loud “I’ll tell you the time if you show me your watch”. Sadly the picture TOM processes do generate is often missing empathy, the key ingredient that spurs the organisation’s people on to make things better for their customers.
  • They truly understand their operating model (clue: it won’t look like a flow chart). Organisations are nothing more than systems made of, and by, people. They’re complex social constructs that operate on emotional as well as financial planes. This is what agile understands when it says “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. To map an organisation by decomposition is to follow in the footsteps of the early Cartesians, dissecting a dog to prove it has no soul.
  • They have the capacity to make very frequent adaptations in response to their ever-growing understanding of customer needs. Being able to respond quickly to what you learn beats any amount of predicting and planning. Embracing diversity means pushing decision-making to the frontline. This in turn reduces the waste inherent in standardised processes. Let’s cultivate this as a core competency of every organisation. If we never get stuck in a rut, we’ll never require a “change programme” to jolt us out again – and that should come as a relief to all concerned.

All of this poses problems to an organisation addicted to discontinuous change. We’ll have to break down the Berlin Wall between the bits of an organisation that create “strategy” and the bits that do “operations”. Likely, product development can no longer be capitalised, so the balance sheet might appear worse before it gets better.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the only sane way to run an organisation.

Learning by doing: it’s the Last Target Operating Model You’ll Ever Need™

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