The Uses And Dangers Of Ideal State Models

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Wednesday, 7.08pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Every utopia – let’s just stick with the literary ones – faces the same problem: What do you do with the people who don’t fit in? – Margaret Atwood

There is an approach to thinking through a problem that relies on the idea of an “ideal future state.” This seems to be, on the surface, a good idea. But is it – and where does it come from in the first place?

A starting point with an ideal future state analysis is in the context of organisational development or change. Let’s sit people down and talk about what an ideal future looks like to them. You can even do this for yourself – it’s called the perfect day exercise. Write down everything you would do on a perfect day – from the time you get up to the time you go to sleep. Include every important detail, all the things you want to do and have in your life. As a group you can do a similar exercise, working out everything that would make your situation perfect.

Then you analyse what you’ve put down. What does your perfect day, your perfect organisation look like? And what relation does your current reality have when compared to that ideal future state. A common “wish” for organisations is to have the growth rates and valuations typically associated with successful technology firms. Wouldn’t it be great if you were worth a billion even though you’re making a loss? But if you want to have that kind of growth rate you also have to be in the kind of business that has the characteristics shared by the firms you want to emulate.

For example, Facebook’s net revenue per employee last year was over $600,000. McKinsey, a global consultancy business, makes around half that per employee. What matters for certain results is not what you want but what the fundamental economics are of the business you’re in – the returns on capital you can generate and the kind of moat you have around what you do.

The first issue we have then, with this approach, is that the ideal state also has to be an achievable state – wishing for something doesn’t make it so.

The next problem quickly appears when you start to search for where this idea came from in the first place. One source is Plato and his idea of a utopia where everyone was equal, you had a right place in society but could move up on merit and individual interest was given up in preference to supporting the public good. There is a clear and obvious danger to applying any theory of an ideal state to societies – because you end up with an “in” group and an “out” group and we’re all aware of what happens as a result, especially when there is an imbalance of power.

The inevitable conclusion we come to is that any ideal state can only be ideal for the group of people who stand to benefit from its coming into existence. If you want to carry out an exercise, with just the leaders of an organisation to find out what they feel an ideal future state will be you will inevitably end up with one that furthers their interests but doesn’t represent those people that weren’t invited to the ideation process.

The best you can hope for is that you improve the situation from where it is now – and that you take enough views into account so that the changes you create make things better, on the whole, for as many people as possible. Arguably you should aim for consensus – if your decision makes even one person worse off than they are now then perhaps you shouldn’t do anything at all. It’s very hard to sustain arguments that one person’s loss is worth the progress for a large number of others – not unless you live in a society that places little value on the individual.

I think the conclusion I am coming to is that using an “ideal future state” method is dangerous in almost all important situations. However, it may be useful in specific situations where the end result cannot cause too much damage.

A good barometer of when to use the method is the Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin asks Hobbes, “If you could have anything in the world right now what would it be?” Hobbes thinks for a bit and says, “A sandwich.” What kind of stupid wish is that, screams Calvin, “Talk about a failure of imagination! I’d ask for a trillion billion dollars, my own space shuttle, and a private continent!”

The panel ends with Hobbes munching on a sandwich and saying, “I got MY wish.”

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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