Following is part of the story David and I co-created with the people of SciFi, in the process of researching and consulting with them.
"I grew up never really knowing what my father did, because he worked at SciFi and he wasn't allowed to talk about it. It was the same for lots of kids around here." Hearing this comment from one of my MBA students, I was beginning to understand the daily lived experiences behind the big sign we saw as we arrived for our first day of interviews at SciFi. Right there on the brick archways housing the armed guards, bold letters prohibited cameras and recording devices. First-day jitters blossomed into a moment of panic. Surely we had mentioned to the general that we had planned to tape record our interviews, hadn't we? Later we discovered that while others in the past had been forbidden to tape record, no one objected to our doing so. Looking back, shouldn't we have guessed that in this environment of routine secrecy, communication would be a serious problem?
SciFi is a high-tech military-related government organization, founded in 1945 at the height of efforts to bring an end to World War II. As with most such organizations, they are highly sophisticated with regard to personnel and equipment, with high security requirements. They are governed by a complex overlaying of military bureaucracy and governmental regulations. Their environment has always been greatly affected by global military and political actions. As with most defense-related activities, the end of the cold war brought reduced funding. But every military "hot spot" like the Gulf War, brings an upsurge in demand for service and a corresponding release of government funding, which may be too late to meet crisis needs. In peaceful times, SciFi is under increasing pressure to recover high overhead costs by bringing in more revenue from private entrepreneurial ventures, i.e. using their high-tech staff and equipment for non-military purposes. These efforts represent a new and as yet fairly small portion of their income. Some think that the SciFi technology is too specialized to adapt to private industry uses, at least not on a scale broad enough to replace the vast scope of their military activities. SciFi also leases space to small hi-tech private organizations, which are also customers. Next to their US military customer services, SciFi's other mainstay is selling their services to foreign governments. This practice is common with other branches of our government/military organizations. It is justified by noting that we retain the most advanced weapons technologies for ourselves, while selling only older weaponry against which it is claimed we can easily defend ourselves.
About two years ago SciFi decided to become more proactive in managing its destiny, by engaging in a strategic planning and reorganizing effort. Their
intention was to become more flexible and more competitive, and to make SciFi more "businesslike," and the plan was called "SciFi Inc." Some called it "reengineering." A small group of top people worked with a consultant to design a more business-like, reengineered organization. Implementation of this plan was met with great resistance, resulting in seriously low morale and high perceived uncertainty. People whose parents had spent their careers at SciFi and retired from there, suddenly realized they might not be able to do the same. These reactions occurred in spite of the fact that great efforts had been made to avoid any forced lay-offs. Some reported that two years into this implementation people were looking back and saying, "That wasn't so bad!"
At present, there are differing views on the success of the reengineering efforts at SciFi. Some felt the reengineering plan was both necessary and good. Some said they would not participate in any future effort which did not build on the good work begun and yet to be completed by the first reengineering project. Others felt that the plans may have been good, but poor participation and communication with the workforce made implementation problematic. Still others felt the early work was a near-disaster, and recommended that we not even use certain words, which had become negatively associated with the earlier reengineering change program.
In retrospect, it appears the workforce and most of the leadership of SciFi believe they had little or no voice in the plan or its implementation. They attended the over 20 briefings conducted by the general, but apparently did not understand the nature of, or the justification behind, many of the changes. Then David and I were brought in, to begin a new "strategic planning" process. After interviewing key people, we began our consultation with a letter.
Dear SciFi Leaders:
We have finished a series of 15 interviews, each lasting an hour and a half, with the top leaders of SciFi and we want to write to tell you our discoveries. We appreciate your openness and candor during our interviews. From those interviews we present below a summary of the results most relevant to our first day's meeting on Wednesday April 23.
First, we present our general assessment of SciFi. You are the people who made possible the joke about the job that "doesn't take a rocket scientist." Your jobs do require rocket scientists, and you have, as one person said, "the best of the best." You have work areas that look like science fiction movie sets. In spite of budget cuts and the end of the cold war, you had "scud-busters" in place and working within 48 hours during Desert Storm. People enjoy their work so much, that it was reported that they cheerfully arrived at 3am, for no extra pay, to carry out tests. They do "just great...(in spite of) 1950s equipment." You are the premier testing site for DoD. You are proud of your beautiful setting, a Shangri-La-like private valley which you maintain in near "pristine" conditions, protecting your big-horned sheep and herd of wild horses. You are good neighbors, contributing between $1-11/2 million per day to the surrounding local economies. What has disturbed this ideal scene?
According to some, this is the story of people who until very recently were the best and the brightest, they were the solution; now they feel they are treated like they are the problem. Yesterday they were the shining white knights; today they are white elephants. They were scud-busting heroes; now they are budget-busting expense items. What happened between yesterday and today?
SciFi is experiencing trouble and everyone would like to help. There was high agreement that the employees are the greatest strength of SciFi. One person described this strength as: "the devotion of employees toward accomplishing the mission of the range to make things happen successfully; the most technically sound people in DoD." These are the people who worked around the clock during Dessert Storm. Yet, these people with all their years of dedicated experience and expertise were not consulted about the SciFi Inc plan. The approach of having over 60 people in a meeting proved unwieldly, and the strategic planning process was then delegated to three persons. Those persons were chosen for their years of experience and presumed relatively unbiased perspectives. Their recommendations went to the general, who announced the plan in a series of briefings. In retrospect, it appears the workforce and most of the leadership of SciFi believe they had little or no voice in the plan or its implementation. They attended the briefings but did not understand the reasoning and justification behind many of the changes. Thus, to some, it appeared as though "yesterday we were the best workforce and today we are worthless." What happened between yesterday and today were many changes, changes so rapid one person said "I would stop changing here" and "We are not in the status quo mode now, we are in the mode of "where are we?"" and "It's that C word."
While everyone recognized that change is difficult and typically resisted, it is believed to be especially difficult to manage the recent changes here at SciFi for several reasons, some of which are: 1) Initial expectation levels may be unusually high at SciFi. Some employees saw their parents retire from a lifetime of service here, and they were expecting to do the same. 2) Lack of communication regarding the changes; one person suggested that even saying "We still don't know what will happen" would be helpful communication.
Stop. As the storyteller, I will intervene now before I present the restorying recommendations which David and I presented to SciFi. I want to give you, the reader, a chance to restory this situation yourself. Below is some additional background on SciFi, followed by an outline of steps to take to restory.
Fueling the forces for change at SciFi are an impressive series of economic, environmental, political, and regulatory pressures which are acting on a global scale. Seeking to proactively manage this turbulent environment, SciFi leadership embarked on the SciFi Inc. Strategy. It is difficult to know which of the current problems stem from the above-named external pressures, and which stem from flaws in the SciFi Inc plan itself. Most comments indicated that problems were perceived to flow not from the SciFi Inc plan itself, but from its implementation. Such problems were described most often as "communication" problems.
But almost everything is a communication problem. By examining the steps below, you, the reader, may discover how David and I, as the consultants in this story, composed the above letter to SciFi in a way which we hoped would enable them to see their situation as a story, and as such, they would be able to restory themselves. Do you see in the letter, the restorying elements listed below?
STEPS IN THE ORGANIZATIONAL RESTORYING PROCESS
1. CHARACTERIZE: INFLUENCE MAPPING
-what is the problem's influence on the persons?
-what is the "state of affairs" at the onset, middle, and end of the story?
-what is the "state of affairs" we would predict for the future?
-how has the problem affected people's relationships with themselves?
-what ideas, beliefs, etc. feed the problem?
-the people are not the problem; a particular person is not the problem
-make the problem into a character ("overwork") that the person, as agent, can affect
-reduces the depressing effects of problem-saturated accounts
3. REVISE: IDENTIFYING UNIQUE OUTCOMES
-multiple stories & outcomes possible
-expand the alternative story--what thoughts and feelings, what happened before, after?
4. RE-HISTORICIZE: RESTORY
-choose the past "unique outcomes" which support the new story
-choose the future predictions/predictors which support the new story
5. PUBLICIZE: AUDIENCING AND SUPPORTING THE NEW STORY
-"letters of reference"
-concretize the "reauthoring" process
-tangible evidence of support and interest
The above steps were developed by the author, and are derived from White and Epston's Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, (New York: Norton and Company, 1990), and from other examples of restorying efforts, especially by Barry, Kaye, and others. These and other related references are listed in a bibliography by Boje (Storytelling Research in Organizations, 1997, unpublished manuscript presented at the Organizational Behavior Teaching Conference, 1997, and available from Professor Boje at New Mexico State University).
Now I return to the letter David and I sent to SciFi, taking it up where we attempt to lead the SciFi top management into redefining their problems as a story which can then be changed or restoried. Do you think we convinced them?
Recommendation. At this point we would like to make a recommendation regarding how to redefine these reported problems. We recommend a process we call "externalizing" the problem. With this approach, we do not view the problem as being due to the characteristics of the people in the organization. This step alone helps us to avoid finger-pointing and blaming, and the strong tendency for attributional biases to lead us to see other people as "the problem." Instead, we look to external factors influencing the problem, and we assume that "the problem" IS "the problem." This subtle yet powerful redefinition allows our people to be part of our solution, to again be our heroes. We plan to spend a part of the time during our first day's meeting to focus on this positive and productive way of describing problems. By revising the story of the problem ("restorying"), we escape the victim language and dynamics of the "problem-saturated" storyline. We then control the problem, and have thus empowered ourselves to take action against it. Some examples of "externalized" problem definitions might be FEAR or UNCERTAINTY.
I interrupt again, not to present my conclusions but to invite you to
create your own. After days of wrestling with understanding the various
aspects or parts of their problems, the SciFi top management group was
floundering. They had steadfastly resisted all attempts to get them to
restory themselves. On the morning of the last day, David showed a video
of a business case example of a turn-around. On overheads, David showed
how SciFi could adopt a strategy along similar lines. The impact was dramatic.
They saw the light. "That's us! We're just like the company in the video!
We want the same plan. Let's just adopt what is on David's overheads!"
They were saved, and David was their savior. Could we have just used the
video, and skipped this story stuff? I believe our days of work allowed
this group to understand the elements of their story, and the video-model
then triggered their ability to restory. What's your story?