ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

April 1999

Articles

A Sunny Forecast
Grassroots Teams Help Sun Micorsystems Raise Customer Satisfaction

Coming Full Circle
Measuring and Improving Organizational Effectiveness

Oil Change
Externalization, Change Management Key to Realignment

Project Management:
Just Do It!

A Step by Step Overview ofa 1950's Organizational Tool Experiencing a 1990's Rebirth



Columns

Hope Is Where You Find It
by Peter Block

Sorry We're Closed: Diary of a Shutdown


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Views for a Change

Sites Unseen
Reader's Favorite Websites

The Quality Tool I Never Use

Pageturners
Book

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Calendar of Events

 

Hope Is Where You Find It
By Peter Block

I attended a meeting a few months ago that was quite startling. It was a two day meeting convened by the Pacific Southwest Region of the USDA Forest Service. The meeting was part of an effort to find ways to engage new people and resources in the success of the Forest Service ... a reinvention project, pardon the term.
In the room there were some friends of the service and also people who had spent a good part of their lives fighting it, plus members of the Forest Service who had spent a lot of resources fighting back. In addition to the Forest Service members, there were lumber company owners, environmentalists, biologists, river guides, lawyers for the lumber companies, a magazine publisher, federal policy leaders, libertarians, a sports clothing manufacturer and an environmental law policy professor. It was a group more used to confrontation than conversation.

Enter High Interaction Strategy
The meeting was run by Gifford Pinchot, author, consultant, good soul and his associates. Despite some concern, the tension they feared never arrived. I think it was the structure of the event that allowed these groups to talk in a different way.
First, they were really invited, not sent or nominated. Each could say no. They were invited with a phone call. Inefficient, but human. And they were asked to help create a future, not to solve the past. Plus a demand was made in the invitation: “You must come for two days, and come to participate, not to present.”
The structure of the meeting had everyone look at the Forest Service as a whole. Everyone took the perspective of top management. We discussed what was pressuring it, how it has been responding, what was its history and what was our vision for the Service in 2020.
Instead of one vision, we created five visions with different themes. One was about saving the land and its ecology, another was the land as an educational experience, another was about the spirituality of the forest, another about the economy of the system and its water, recreational and wood resources and finally there was a vision that the service was a chance to build community. Why limit ourselves to only one vision of what tomorrow can become?

Five Months Later
The effort continues. Many of the connections among unlikely suitors made in the meeting have been sustained. The work has taken more focus now aimed at the use and preservation of the water resources on forest land. They are also planning to address this issue in a similar high-engagement meeting. Some of the patterns remain unchanged, some of the participants are probably still wary, but if nothing else, it has infused some hope into the organization and started to change the pattern that hung like a cloud for a long time.

The Point For Us
What was significant about this government meeting about a volatile issue was:
- No legislation or new mandates were called for to pressure some other group into falling into line with a future we had in mind.
- It was a meeting with no speeches or presentations. No keynote address, no question and answer sessions where the person standing has an answer and the audience only has questions.
- Five visions of the future were created. Each quite different with a unique focus and set of values and concerns underlying it. No one demanded that we have to decide, pick only one vision, make the tough choices and make them now. The group recognized the legitimacy and compatibility of alternative visions.
- It became a pluralistic society. Diversity of viewpoint was valued as much as the diversity we all long for in our forests.
- The regional leadership of the Forest Service fully joined the discussion as members. They were not silenced, but they did not drive the discussion in some pre-planned direction. They were sponsors of the meeting. They participated in the design of the meeting and the decision about who would run the meeting. They provided insider knowledge when it was required, but they had the faith that this group would define directions that they could commit to.
- Forest Service employees from many levels were also participants: middle and lower level managers, some workers. They all brought their voice into the room. They were even selected because they would speak up.
- There were no common vows of action and next steps. Each person defined for themselves what a meaningful action would be. They made a bet that it would be their emotional commitment and the healing experience of the session that would drive follow-up. We did not go through the motion of next steps, lists of actions and their measures. We know by now that the traditional “day-timer” tactics have not particularly worked in the past to bring about changes in attitude or common cause.
- No electronic technology was required. We were able to meet without the usual tools of persuasion: teleconferencing, leader videos, slides, overhead projectors or PowerPoint. Y2K was no sword over our head.
- We were dependent on social technology. For example:
- Great attention was given to who was at each table. At times I sat with strangers, other times with people of common perspective.
- Great attention was given to respecting the past. They created a timeline with butcher paper across a long wall, marking the beginning of the Forest Service all the way to the present. Then we were invited to note on the timelines events we were a part of or events that were profound. In silence, our history was written on the wall.
- Great attention was given to focusing on the future. What do we want to create together? In pictures, in words, from small group to large.
- There was time for real conversation. Dialogue took precedence over schedule. We spoke without negotiation, without final answers.
For me personally, my mind was changed. I found lumber company executives who cared about the environment. Environmental activists who were reasonable and ate meat. Government employees and executives who listened, made no speeches. A river guide who wanted to make some real money. Academics that were deeply involved in their community and cared more about learning than teaching. And one woman whose family lumber business ended in the debris of the spotted owl battle, and decided to give her life towards building a viable community.

Leadership for a Change
The event was significant for more than its service to our national forests. It demonstrated what leadership could be. The bosses convened this group and then joined it. They decided to use their power for dialogue and common cause rather than mandate and direction and more policy. They were not a role model, they did not keep asking how to measure progress, they knew change takes a while and each step has value.
They also held this conference on their own, indifferent to how much support they got from their bosses. They did not defend their past, and finally, they were personally and emotionally committed to the purpose of the institution. This is what bosses should be doing. And there must be more of them around.
The experience also showed that we have all the social technology and skill required to change our world. It was an example of the power of a different language. One where forgiveness, calling, choice and restoration were legal and present. For some reason we think we need permission to build on language like this and design rooms where it belongs.
This meeting affirmed that we know what the new conversation is and the outline of a new story. We know how to bring adversarial parties together to create hope, how to create meetings where all voices are heard, where listening is allowed. And where action follows understanding and reflection rather than preceding it.
It is good to know that our government has the capacity to bring people together in a way that supports connection and activism and common interest. These stories of our government rarely get told.


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