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Moving to the ‘ideal state’ of HR: challenges and opportunities

Mary Faulkner, IA
Mary Faulkner
Mary Faulkner is a principal with IA, working with clients to help them get "unstuck" and move toward their ideal outcomes. Prior to joining IA, she spent nearly 20 years as an HR leader, gravitating toward organizations in multiple industries looking to make major changes across all areas of human resources. Having served has served as both a people manager and key project leader in tackling some of the challenges associated with complex transformations from within organizations, Mary is thrilled to have found a role that allows her to help multiple businesses through their evolution toward their ideal future state.

The excitement from an HR transformation comes from the promise of something better.

That makes sense. After all, the organization wouldn’t have chosen the transformation path if it hadn’t recognized the need to do things differently. Getting started can be difficult enough; what you need to be able to do is stick the landing. But successful transformation is about more than avoiding failure. It’s about moving your business to a completely new way of doing things—something we call the “ideal future state.”

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The concept of an ideal state is not new. Lean methodologies and Six Sigma have been using them for years as part of the value stream mapping process, particularly in manufacturing environments. In this context, the ideal state seeks to eliminate waste, improve takt time (the time it takes to meet customer demand) and lower production costs. Business transformation ideal state is similar in that we seek to minimize pain points, improve process cycle time, find ways to control costs and minimize excess burden on associated stakeholders.

At IA, we approach the ideal future state as the foundation upon which the strategic roadmap is built. By designing the best-case scenario for the future state, it creates a target for the organization to strive for, even if it’s years in the future. We firmly believe transformation cannot happen if you don’t know what you are transforming to. This is equally true for situations including a simple process optimization, the selection of a new software solution or the implementation of a new operating model.

Seems straightforward, right? Wrong. Designing ideal future state is consistently one of the most difficult phases of a project for teams driving transformation. While the general concept of “the future” is one teams readily embrace, the process of actually putting pen to paper can be a struggle. Because it’s so important to master this skill, recognizing the root cause of this challenge may help overcome the two primary obstacles we encounter: a desire to protect the familiar, and a lack of imagination.

A desire to protect the familiar

Many teams have built their processes over years and are understandably proud of the fact that they’ve found a way to get things done in the face of adversity. When mapping the current state with these teams, we can see how much they care about ensuring frontline employees and leadership alike receive the best possible service … even if that means using 10 spreadsheets to track a new hire process and re-entering data manually into three separate systems. There’s almost an unspoken competition to see who can identify the most pain points (not exactly the prize you want to win!).

Despite this, when we start exploring future state, we often see teams resist leaving their comfort zone. For example, we were working with a team on optimizing their talent acquisition processes. We introduced the benefits that position management could bring to the organization, highlighting automation and self-service to gain efficiencies and improve data accuracy. Immediately, the teams raised concerns around access: “Managers won’t put the information in correctly,” or “Employees don’t want to go into the system.”

When we hear these arguments, we know it’s not coming from a place of stubbornness; it’s coming from a place of fear. Fear of change. Fear of the unknown. Fear that their role might change, or even go away. In the current state, the team members are subject matter experts (SMEs), keepers of the knowledge, protectors of the process. They are Important (with a capital I). In the future state, everything is new; their “specialness” may feel diminished.

In this case, the best thing to do is to remind the team that transformation cannot happen without change. Help the team see how the ideal future state removes several of their pain points, allowing them to focus on other work. Acknowledge that change can be scary … and exciting. They have a unique opportunity to help shape the future of their organization, and leadership has asked for their ideas. Continue to remind them that change doesn’t happen overnight; most transformations are truly a marathon and not a sprint. Throughout the process, the team’s input is vital to the success of the transformation.

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A lack of imagination

When we design ideal future state, we are system-agnostic, which means we strive to ensure the process is driving the technology needs, not the other way around. Because we are designing for the ideal future state, we want to unleash ALL possibilities, not just the ones dictated by current systems. This can be very overwhelming, to the point that teams often default to the limitations of their current state.

In the beginning, when we first started using future state mapping to help drive transformation, we started with a completely blank page, asking, “If you had a magic wand, what would the new process look like?” More often than not, we’d be met with blank stares and panicked expressions. We don’t do that anymore because we realized that while many teams want change, they just have no idea what it could look like. They lacked process imagination to see beyond what they’ve been dealing with for years. They can’t easily envision a future state where managers are held accountable for their behaviors, where systems work as designed and where employees have access to the system in the field. Why? Because they haven’t seen it yet.

To help paint a picture of what the future state might look like, we now present a recommended future state process for the team to react to. This gives them a launchpad to consider a new way of doing things. We will sometimes even put in a purposeful mistake—something that makes no sense, is illegal, out of order or less advanced to what they have today. By finding—and correcting—that mistake, the team has gained agency in the process. They are more confident that they understand what the goal is for future state and are a more willing participant in the design of that process.

Once ideal future state is agreed upon, we can then scale back to interim future state design to allow for incremental progress towards the future. Teams often ask us to start with interim first, but we always start with ideal state. If you start with limitations, you’ll never move beyond them.

The art of the possible

Ultimately, ideal future state design is about embracing the art of the possible. Not every ideal future state will be realized. Sometimes it can take years to get there; sometimes it never happens at all. What’s important is breaking the cycle of repetition that drove the need for transformation in the first place.

The techniques shared here won’t solve all the issues. Teams will still push back when asked to stretch the boundaries of current state. Just remember—resistance is better than silence. Encourage debate. Question the status quo. Unlock imagination. It just may be the difference between talking about change and actually implementing it.