Maps/Gear | Palette of Possibilities | 3-Span Bridge Lens
3-Span Bridge Lens

It is wise to approach the architectural design and execution of organizational capacity-building initiatives with the same care as we do for our physical structures.

The 3-Span Bridge Model helps distinguish the challenge of building organizational capacity from the simpler challenge of developing individual capabilities.

A capacity-building initiative is only as strong as its weakest span.

The Expertise Span

We can easily visualize the range and distribution of expertise required to design and construct a new office building. Hundreds of people may be involved. Expertise in dozens of specialized technologies and crafts are required in order to plan, design and construct a building that satisfies the diverse needs of the many people who will ultimately be involved. We know that the expertise of an experienced architect will be essential to the success of such a project.

Organizational learning and change initiatives can have much more at stake than an office building project. And yet, it has become common for organizations to undertake capacity-building initiatives without having developed adequate B- and C-work expertise throughout its leadership.

C-work expertise is critical to discovering generative (highly leveraged, life- giving) approaches to organization capacity-building. C-work requires architectural skills, the ability to understand and design for all of the various kinds of developmental work required. Generative approaches to C-work usually involve developing a high level of B- and C-work expertise in key players throughout the system. One proven approach involves recruiting/selecting line organization leaders with developmental aptitudes and placing them on, say, two-year full-time assignments as B/C-work practitioners. This has the multiplying benefit of developing high potential players into transformational leaders through hands-on expericnce.

The Infrastructure Span

Organization learning and change work usually requires special infrastructure to be successful. Just as scaffolding and forms are essential to the construction of complex physical structures, so organization capacity-building needs special support and protection, especially during its formative stages.

Perhaps the most elegantly effective infrastructure for capacity-building initiatives is an organizing fabric woven from "action-learning strands." These highly flexible forms can be easily adapted to the various levels and stages of any initiative. Action-learning strands consist of an on-going cycle from "learning nodes" with learning in the foreground and doing is in the background, to "action threads" with doing in the foreground and learning in the background. This organic infrastructure can become as natural and important to organizational sustainability as breathing is to physical sustainability. Action-learning strands may be created as a form of scaffolding to support a particular one-time change initiative. They may also be woven throughout an organization as the fabric that holds its developmental fabric in place.

The resemblance of this graphic depiction to DNA is nicely synchronous. When woven into the fabric of an organization these strands help shape, develop and sustain a culture of on-going, ever-improving organizational learning and change.

First we shape the structures, then the structures shape us

Leaders can speak of high purpose, compelling visions and inspiring values. However, if appropriate infrastructure isn't evolved to address the capacity-building challenges implicit in their visions, they're just blowing smoke. Conversely, if infrastructure is constructed that is both robust and congruent with the special needs of this special work, a powerful message is sent—and magic is unleashed.


Just as designing and building a physical structure requires an investment of time, attention and money, so it is with building new organization capacities or managing organizational change. While this is obviously true in the early stages of exploring, planning and designing such initiatives, it is equally true during the startup, implementation and stabilization stages.

I've been engaged in, witnessed and studied organizational learning and change initiatives for well over 30 years. There's nothing more painful than to witness the incredible direct and hidden costs occurred when these initiatives aren't adequately resourced. It's can be as serious as taking off on a transatlantic flight without adequate fuel.

It's always best to stack the deck for success when birthing and nurturing a new culture and new organizational capacities. You can always reduce resources when they are no longer needed. You only have one opportunity to do things for the first time.