A Clean Sheet Approach to Transformative Planning

Imagine an exercise that allows – even encourages – leaders to visualize the ideal organization, one that is aligned with current and future realities instead of one that is bound by past baggage and biases.

In this time of turmoil, there is a need for new ideas and new structure. And with the possibility of a change in leadership come the end of the year, many decisions will need to be made, and they should be made with change and the future in mind.

At the root of this approach to decision-making is the question: If you could start with a clean sheet, would you create the same organization you currently have or would you design it differently?

Why Clean Sheet?

It is important for corporations and government organizations to go through a clean sheet exercise in parallel to traditional strategic planning efforts because too often, an organization can become a victim of its past successes. Aside from present changes, when the future itself holds a high degree of uncertainty, a clean sheet exercise helps organizations free themselves from legacy decisions and remove the sunk cost fallacy to understand paths to success in multiple alternate futures and scenarios.

Past efforts to improve and make minor adjustments ultimately create misalignment with the realities of the market and future operating environment. Leaders must take the opportunity to explore and challenge the foundational operating assumptions, assess what is required for success, and determine the optimal path forward.

What is the Value in Clean Sheet?

There is widespread value to an organization that dares to envision a very different version of itself for the future. A clean start allows leaders to:

  • Approach planning with foresight and goal-setting
  • Step out of current constraints and truly explore ways for the organization to capitalize on opportunities that may exist but can’t be seen because of bias and blind spots
  • Identify current organizational constraints that must be overcome
  • Regain control overtaken by a “because we’ve always done it that way” mentality
  • Identify gaps that can be filled through methods of building, partnering, or buying
  • Be disruptive instead of being disrupted
  • Create change agents within the larger organization that will help to move the organization to a successful future more rapidly
  • Test various organization designs against multiple future state assumptions

What Does it Take to Clean Sheet?

Clean sheet is more than an exercise in thought. Toffler Associates builds this approach on foresight and strategic advisory methodologies that bring corporate and government leaders together to “imagine if?” Imagine if you allocated your budgets differently? Imagine if you could shift the ideals of your company mission? Imagine if you could be flexible enough to react to shifts like these down the line? Imagine if…?

The beauty of beginning with an exercise in thought is that the cost to the organization is fairly low. The outlay of resources to just think about things in a new way is relatively small. In fact, if you consider the total cost over the lifetime of any type of project or program – from inception to implementation – the initial costs for research and development are not much comparatively, with costs rising over the life cycle of the project to final implementation. That visioning work must be followed with the practical analysis that accounts for initiatives across strategy, structure, people, process, technology, and customers.

Most important, it takes the organization’s leaders to be open-minded to near- and long-term success.

What is the Outcome of a Clean Sheet Exercise?

Once an organization has gone through an extensive clean sheet analysis, it is natural to ask, “now what?” What is the outcome?  Can the organization’s leaders put into action the steps they would take if they were starting with a clean slate?  Equally as important, do they want to put them into action?

Leaders and advisors at this point make a deliberate decision about how to move forward – the keyword being deliberate.  They may choose not to implement some of the “wish list” right away, but the reasons for doing so are real and valid. Consequences of possible courses of action – both intended and unintended –must be considered and analyzed.

Having the ability to link external environment changes to specific internal organizational changes is a big advantage because you would know what external events trigger what kind of internal organizational response, and you’re able to react and adapt to that seamlessly.

The most significant outcome of a clean sheet exercise can be simply the change in perspective it brings to the organization’s leaders. Envisioning the organization from the ground up gives leaders the understanding – and passion – with which to influence others throughout the organization. They know what needs to happen and they are excited by the possibilities. By championing that vision of the organization of tomorrow, today’s leaders can truly affect a culture change which, over time, brings the vision closer to reality.

If you have any questions about the clean sheet exercise or would like help implementing the activity into your organization to help strategize for your future, please contact us.

Want to learn more about preparing for the Future of Work? Download our guide.

Step into the Future of Work

About the Authors

Dave Baber

Dave Baber is Managing Director and leads Toffler Associates DoD and Resilience practice areas. He advises executives across commercial and government sectors on strategic initiatives that build and protect an organization's value. He previously worked at Deloitte Consulting, as a portfolio and risk management consultant. In addition to his role in Toffler Associates, he is currently in the Army National Guard with more than 20 years serving as an Engineer Officer in roles from Platoon to Division, and functional roles in Facilities Management and Information Operations. Dave is also an active member of the National Guard Bureau's Innovation Team (NGIT) advising the Chief, National Guard and his leadership team on how to address challenges facing the National Guard.  Dave earned a Bachelors of Science from Virginia Military Institute.

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