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Week 39, 2020

The 7S Framework: Mutually Exclusive, Intrinsically Linked, and Continuously Realigned

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Each week I share three ideas on and about the future of work. And this week, those ideas all pertain to the 7S Framework.

Why am I writing about this? Have you ever wondered how to best break an organization into component parts? You’re not alone. Many have tried. And while there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, one framework reigns supreme:

1. Mutually Exclusive

The 7Ss was created by Tom Peters in the late 1970s and early 80s, during his time at McKinsey. And it forms the backbone of the book In Search of Excellence — Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies that he co-authored with Robert Waterman in 1982. The framework suggests organizations be broken down into 7 mutually exclusive parts: Strategy, Systems, and Structure (Hard Ss) and Staff, Skills, Style, and Shard Values (Soft Ss).

2. Intrinsically Linked

While the categories are mutually exclusive, they most certainly do not exist in a vacuum. As Peters writes in A Brief History of the 7S: “At its most powerful and complex, the framework forces us to concentrate on interactions and fit. The real energy required to re-direct an institution comes when all the variables in the model are aligned…Deal with all seven or accept the consequences.”

3. Continuously Realigned

What the 7S purports to help with is the continuous realignment of the 7 categories. It provides a shared understanding of what matters and why. And it requires that we ask tough questions about our organization. But it doesn’t provide any guidance in terms of what questions to ask. Nor does it help explain how to deal with potential problems if and when they appear. That is up to you, the practitioner, to figure out.

The “Mutually Exclusive” phrasing on top is a hat-tip to McKinsey’s MECE Principle — “a grouping principle for separating a set of items into subsets that are mutually exclusive (ME) and collectively exhaustive (CE).” I do not know whether Peters et al used the principle in creating the 7Ss, but it’s possible. Barbara Minto, who coined the term, was in charge of training at McKinsey in the 1970s. In other words, a contemporary of both Peters and Waterman. And while she didn’t actually put MECE into book form until 1987’s The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking (featured in w502019), it’s not unreasonable to suspect the idea could somehow have made its way to Peters… but I digress.

The point is this: while the 7Ss aren’t MECE per se (it’s ME but not necessarily CE), it could be made so. One could drill down into each of the 7S to unearth their component parts. Staff could subdivide by occupational categories, for example; thus providing a bit more detail to work with. Just be careful not to take it too far. Simplicity is a virtue. And if we expand on the 7S too much, we risk eroding the “shared understanding” mentioned above. So keep it simple. And keep in lean. Peters would approve.

That’s all for this week.

Until next time.




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Andreas Holmer

Andreas Holmer

Designer, reader, writer. Sensemaker. Management thinker. CEO at MAQE — a digital consulting firm in Bangkok, Thailand.