The STaRS Transition Model for Organization and Career

The STaRS transition model is a strategic and implementation framework that can provide great guidance for you when you are starting in a new role. It applies to a transitioning business manager, program manager, or project manager.

This post looks at how change plays a role in any transitional situation. It provides a lens through which you can gain new perspective on what is needed and how to approach the situation logically – and not necessarily based on your experience or natural tendencies.

What Is the STaRS Transition Model?

The STaRS transition model was developed in the early 2000s by Michael D. Watkins. It was originally focused on transition strategies for individual professional transitioning to new roles. You can get a flavor for this in Watkins’ Harvard Business Review article, “Picking the Right Transition Strategy” and in his book, “The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter” (paid link).

STaRS transition model

As the diagram shows, there are four components (bold in the diagram):

  • Realignment – Situations where the organization’s businesses appear to be doing well, and are experiencing some success, but the need for change is anticipated. The situation may appear to be stable, but changes are needed in order to avoid a downward trend and to attain a new sustainable level of success.
  • Turnaround – Dire circumstances show that core stability has disappeared and rapid action is required to reverse the trend.
  • Sustaining Success – This is the most stable situation. The organization is experiencing Sustainable Success and largely needs to maintain or tweak its processes and direction.
  • Startup – Ambitions are high but direction is not necessarily clear. Leadership is needed to steer the enthusiasm and to facilitate rapid learning while building.

These four states have major implications for the type of management effort that is needed to move forward. The needs, based on which of the four describes the situation, may call upon individuals with completely different natural tendencies and skill sets. However, managers can adapt their approaches, if they only know what is needed.  The STaRS model helps with what is needed.

One thing is for certain: an approach that has worked in one situation will not necessarily work in another.  Often the difference lies in the unique approaches needed by each of the four types.

STaRS and Change

The diagram above shows how the different situations relate to one another. In reality, these situations are not static; they transition from one state to another. Change is always happening. It’s a matter of working to influence it in the desired direction.

  • Realignment – The diagram above shows that when a Realignment is a success, the situation transitions to a Sustaining Success. When a Realignment fails, the situation becomes a Turnaround.
  • Turnaround – A successful Turnaround becomes a Sustaining Success. An unsuccessful Turnaround points to the Terminating Point, which could be an outright closure and disposition of assets, or fire sale of the business unit.
  • Sustaining Success – When a Sustaining Success ceases to do well, it transitions to Realignment. When it continues to do well, it opens options for Startups.
  • Startup – Success for a Startup produces a Sustaining Success. Failure for a Startup points to the Terminating Point, which again could be an outright closure and disposition of assets, or fire sale of the business unit. Given the risks of a Startup, limited investment in the venture can control the impact of the negative results.

Change is the only constant. Managing change is a premium skill! The actions that need to be taken will differ, depending on the quadrant, but learning and action are needed. Drifting is not an option, and eventually – maybe rapidly – will lead to failure.

Leading change is challenging and complex, but is one of the greatest leadership skills.

The STaRS Transition Model and Strategy

STaRS strategy frameworkSimilar to the BCG Growth Share Matrix Diagram, the STaRS model also provides quadrants for the four situations.

This is the start of an approach to portfolio management. The reality is that in a business, there will likely be projects in multiple, if not all, of the quadrants. However, depending on the character of the company, there may be one or two quadrants which are dominant.

In short, while at a high level the organization might fit one quadrant, once you dig deeper into the company, there are pieces which fit other or all quadrants. Here are some examples:

  1. Sales are steady and reliable, but the production organization has fallen behind on best practices. Getting that production organization up to speed can fit into the Realignment or Turnaround quadrants, depending on how acute the problem is.
  2. The company is profitable, but there is a slow but systemic exit of skilled employees. Again, initiatives to fix this can fit into either Realignment or Turnaround.
  3. Some products and services are doing very well, but others are performing poorly. It would be wise to sector off those that are doing well with a Sustaining Success approach, and take a Turnaround approach to the others.
  4. Again, some products and services are selling well and predictably, but there is an effort to add a new product line. Efforts on that new product line may be served best with a Startup approach, segmented off from other efforts.

The message is that there is often not a single approach that will work everywhere in the business. It is important to be able to segment the business, and doing so using the four quadrants can be very helpful, since they require different strategies and implementation approaches.

The key is to acknowledge the learning curve you are facing and develop an approach to learning efficiently based on the situation.

Project Management and the STaRS Transition Model

STaRS model for project managersAn implementation approach to projects will be guided by the context of the projects – as guided by the quadrant in which it lies. Here is a brief explanation of the difference in approaches along the two lines shown in the figure at right:

  • Offense vs Defense – Offense means that action is required to stimulate or force change. Defense means that the current situation is good, minimal action is required immediately, but some tweaking to stabilize and defend the position may be needed.
  • More Doing vs More Learning – More Doing means that action is required – and learning can only take place through action and observing results. More Learning means that there is time to contemplate action and spend time observing before taking action.

As you would determine where your projects fit into the BCG Growth Share matrix, it also makes great practical sense to understand and adjust your approach based on the quadrants where your project(s) fit the STaRS matrix. Here are some thoughts on the approach for each quadrant:

  • Startup – In a Startup, you are forging a new path. There really is no existing state for the business. It’s not a matter of learning from what already exists, but learning as you build – a sort of lean agile approach. To accomplish this, you need More Offense and More Doing.
  • TurnaroundTurnaround situations require tough choices and tough management. Things have gotten bad when you get to the point of a Turnaround situation. A starting point is to isolate the assets that have value – and defend them. So, it takes More Defense, but rapid action is necessary, so More Doing is required.
  • Realignment – This is a situation where things may seem to be going well, but something needs to change. It may be unclear just what needs to change, and you need to anticipate resistance to the change. Hence, it is wise to take more time up front for More Learning before taking action. However, the approach will be to identify changes to make – so a More Offense mindset is needed.
  • Sustaining Success – Sustaining Success is the most stable of conditions. The wise approach, therefore, is to take time for More Learning up front before making any changes. Also, a mindset of More Defense is most likely to keep the Sustaining Success going.

Whether you are executing as a General Manager, Program Manager, or Project Manager, you’ll benefit from understanding the context of the situation through the perspective of the STaRS model. It can shape your approach to your situation, and can make a difference between success and failure.

Conclusion and Further Resources

This post reviewed the basics of the STaRS transition model, and looked at how change plays a role in any transitional situation. It looked at how the model has an impact on strategy, and how implementation is shaped by the elements of the model.

Can you see potential application for the STaRS transition model in your work?

The STaRS transition model is a big part of Michaels Watson’s book, “The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter” (paid link).

The following video from the Institute for Management Development (Michael D. Watson is on the faculty) does a great job of explaining the STaRS concept. Note that it shows a fifth ‘quadrant’ – Accelerated Growth.

Leave a Comment