An Initial State Process to Accelerate Innovation

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When analyzing a function for improvement, it is common practice to document the existing operations into what is widely known as a current state. This current state operational view serves as a baseline for improvements. It identifies the inputs, work steps, and outputs (and often a lot more). It serves to ground the team and provide a starting point for designing a future state. In contrast, future states are the destination. They are the sum total of the improvements to the current state to get to a new more effective and efficient operational state. Generally current state and future state views are documented as process maps or flows. Both the current state and the future state are powerful steps for improvement teams to understand where they are today and where they are going in the future.

But what if there is no current operation to use as a starting point for the future? What if there does not exist any foundation? This occurs with an increasing frequency in the digital space and when there are industry-changing innovations like the iphone. Because no similar product/service exists, there is no base view. In these circumstances, the first step is not analysis of what exists; it is creation. When our consulting teams find themselves in this situation, we use a tool called an initial state. An initial state is process documentation that leaps forward in time to assume that what does not exist today – actually exists and is operating in a business as usual state. While it looks like standard process documentation, its purpose and creation are slightly different.

First off, initial states require assumptions. The simple fact that the initial state does not exist requires us to make assumptions about what can be built. These assumptions bridge the gap between theory and a potential reality. But use caution. Do not expect the initial state to be perfect. Make it reasonable, grounded in reality. The initial state is the equivalent of a Minimal Viable Product. It lacks all the bells and whistles of a process whittled down to be more efficient. So while it operates, it is not a best in class solution by any stretch. It’s a workable first step in the evolution of the operational structure of an organization.

The benefit of an initial state is it sets on paper a starting point. It becomes the initial shared perspective of what is actually going to be delivered. It delivers a perspective to be challenged, reworked, and managed until it crosses the line and becomes real. Most importantly, it gets the team engaged and thinking about all the little details and how they come together as a final work output. When building an initial state, there are four general rules our teams follow.

1. Get something on paper! All too often, debates rage as stakeholders work to gain agreement on parts of the solution. It’s like arguing about ingredients on a recipe card and not focusing on what the end product should be. It is a nonproductive use of time. Get down on paper as quickly as possible a design that spans the end-to-end flow of the process. Only then should the team start to identify and work through the component pieces.

2. Remove the stigma of perfection. Your first stab at the initial state will not be the final. Design it with a minimalist perspective. What can you do to get the process up and running with as little effort as possible and as quickly as possible?

3. Recognize it’s okay to have gaps. On occasion the initial state will have glaring gaps. Parts of what is needed for it to operate don’t exist today. That’s okay. The goal of the initial state is to identify these gaps. Only once they are named can they be investigated and resolved.

4. Identify the process limiters. In many situations, the process (especially a new one) is limited based upon preexisting conditions. For example, contracts with third parties, space constraints or limited headcount with the appropriate skillsets may negatively impact a process. Especially for an initial state, it is helpful to list these limiters. They are potentially roadblocks to getting to an optimal future state. Addressing them early in the improvement process increases the likelihood these limitations can be mitigated or removed.

Once the initial state is complete, the real work begins. The challenge is to deliver a working process in a set timeframe… while making it as operationally effective and efficient as possible. An initial state process is but the first step in this journey. It’s version 0.0 with all its defects and imperfections. But it is a start… and you can make it better.


Ankit Tara
posted 5 years 37 weeks ago

Thank you Mark for your kind

Thank you Mark for your kind words and congratulations on what I'm assuming was a successful outcome to the initiative. I couldn't agree more with your final statement - "Knowing at any time what to focus on and what not to focus on is one of the keys to success." Best of luck for your continued success in 2018.
Mark Barnett
posted 5 years 41 weeks ago

Thanks for this interesting

Thanks for this interesting article, David. I was in the situation you described when working as part of a startup team for a new financial services product a little over five years ago. Looking back, I can say we followed your approach rather closely. We started by asking ourselves what capabilities we had to have, and relationships we had to establish, in high-level terms, to deliver the intended service from initial customer interest through completion of service delivery and any post-delivery follow-up activities. This business model / value-stream / capabilities view allowed us to further define the process and detail out how we could deliver the capabilities - starting simple - the MVP approach you describe, and then scaling up and adding business functionality and complexity from there. It set requirements for the systems that would be needed, so we could plan the startup's initial technology strategy. Using a lean startup mindset helps a team be ready to flex and pivot as will undoubtedly be needed when reality begins to intrude on the new enterprise and its people, processes and systems, and their outcomes as experienced by customers. And as we all know... anything can be made better. But knowing at any time what to focus on and what not to focus on is one of the keys to success.

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