Replacing A to B with ABC for More Successful Initiatives

3 Common ‘A to B’ Conversations

Image of the A to B frame
The traditional management and consulting frame of Point A to Point B.

• An executive says to her team: “We are at A today; we need to get to B as soon as possible.”
• An executive asks a management consultant: “We are at A today; I would like to hear how you can help us get to B?”
• A management consultant says to an executive: “Some of your competitors are now at B. Do you want to hear how we can get you there, too?”

Google searches don’t identify the origins of the A to B frame. I first heard of it in the ‘80’s, but over the last week, I heard it used multiple times. In some cases, the context was a ‘going digital’ initiative. Other times it was business-strategy related, a transformation project, process performance, operational enhancement, or something similar; all varying degrees of change from one state to another.

The Gap

The difference between point A and point B is ‘the gap.’ Executives and management consultants sell the gap. “This gap needs filling. We/you need to take that journey.” That is what the executive sells to the CEO, and the CEO sells to the board. For the consultant, the A to B gap could be their next project.

This simple frame is excellent for starting a discussion. The problem is that it is insufficient for filling the gap. Yet it continues to underpin traditional 20th-century management consulting; setting up how the analysis, diagnostic, solutioning, planning, and implementation work occurs.

Some consulting firms brand themselves as specialists in defining A, using rich quantitative data processed by top brains, whose rigor will surface the right point B. Others specialize in predicting and understanding B, getting one firm there, then going to its peers and selling them a similar journey, regardless of starting point A.

Whether a consultant’s model or a company’s internal A to B approach is used, objective research has shown that only 3 out of 10 groups reach B as planned. The other 7 halt the journey, divert down another path, or drag themselves across the finish line years later, tired, worn, and weary.

3 Flaws of  ‘A to B’ Framing

There are three fatal flaws in the A to B frame for strategizing, planning, implementing, and governing organizational initiatives:

  1. The gap is falsely defined by the perceived distance between B-A. Instead, A alone defines the first part of a two-part gap equation.
  2. Few consultants and executives know how to accurately define B. Specifically, they focus too much on means and actions rather than ends and outcomes.
  3. The A to B frame fails to acknowledge the first thing that goes through almost every stakeholder’s head after they hear “We are at A. Let’s get to B.” which is C, the constraints. “Yes, but, trying to do that will cause this bad thing to happen.” and “Yes, but we won’t be able to do it because of x, y, and z.”

Last week at Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business, I was teaching another MBA Managerial Decision Making class how to replace the A to B frame with the ABC frame, addressing the three flaws.

Several had left brand-name management consulting firms to take their MBA at Cornell. Some were also from the Fortune 100, Silicon Valley tech giants, as well as former attorneys, nurses, and federal contractors; a diverse cross-section of late twenty/early thirty-somethings. They were almost all familiar with the A to B frame.

The class ran real-time cases, mimicking what SchellingPoint observed in over 150 projects.

The ‘A to B’ Frame

Image of the A to B frame with values 3 and 8
The traditional A to B frame where the gap is B minus A.

If B has a value 8 and A has a value of 3, we are saying the gap is 5 (8-3).

However, when people think “Yes, but it won’t be possible because of x, y, and z.” seeing constraints such that C=6, then the value of the gap 5, less the constraints, 6, means the benefit is 5-6 = -1.

They are worse off overall. Hence, they resist, publicly or silently.

The ABC Frame

Image of the ABC frame with traditional A to B values
The ABC frame using the traditional A to B values.

Publicly doing the ABC maths (B-A-C) gives ((8-3)-6)=-1. Constraint mitigation reduces C to 0 to 1, say, so that ((8-3)-1)=4. 

Including C in the frame draws out the constraints that will get in the way regardless, and with a proven technique for reducing them to 0 or 1, the gap is still meaningful.

Now you have truly supportive leaders and sponsors.

A is not 3

Image of the ABC frame with AMC values
The ABC frame with advanced management consulting values represented.

Our research shows that in 99% of situations, A is -3, not 3. i.e. The gap is 8 – -3 = 11.

However, few colleagues and consultants want to start projects by pointing out that ‘Where you are today is poor.’ and disengage the group with an accusation of incompetence.

The root issue is that stakeholders are ‘told’ A. “We are here at A, now let’s use your brains to work out how to get to B.”

In Advanced Management Consulting, A is surfaced by the stakeholders. 99% of the time they conclude “This is not good enough. This is not where we want to be.” Neither leaders nor consultants had to tell them; they conclude A = -3 themselves.

So 8- -3 =11, 11-6 (C), is still 5. Get 6 down to 1 and the gap is 10, twice the 5 of the A to B model.

Defining C

Where does C come from? Rather than addressing an initiative’s issues as they arise during the implementation, the key stakeholders are asked “Why won’t this work?” and “What negative side-effects will doing this trigger?”

Our findings from over 150 projects, including Fortune 10 conglomerates to $10M family businesses, demonstrate that a leadership group will average 61 reasons why their A to B journey won’t work. 61. Pushing all those concerns underground because A to B is traditionally framed as a positive, transformative, happy, aspirational conversation, means they remain within the leaders to negatively influence their support during implementation.

More Successful Initiatives

With the ABC model, the C’s are surfaced, validated, and mitigated. I am not aware of an A to B journey that was canceled because the ABC frame showed ‘the view won’t be worth the climb.’ What does happen is that implementation starts sooner, ends sooner, and produces greater outcomes. Such as the F250 company who by the end of their first year of implementation attained their three-year R&D transformation goals designed using ABC.

To put this into practice, start a conversation about a change using A to B. However, once there is a real conversation to be held about how, who, what, where and when, move into ABC.

Replace ‘A to B’ with the ABC Frame

The good news is that you don’t need to sign up for an MBA next year to get this training. It’s available now as part of the Advanced Management Consulting Core Skills eLearning course, at a fraction of the cost.

The latest management consulting core skills are available for non-consultants to learn and use in the many situations where external management consultants are not present.

Internal consultants designing and leading important organizational initiatives learn and apply the state-of-the-profession management consulting how-to.

Upgrade traditional 20th-century methodology to 21st-century management consulting process and skills for superior application of your domain knowledge and consulting expertise.

SchellingPoint blog awarded Top 20 Consulting Blog by Feedpost