Using future search conferences to achieve the APHIS vision

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  • L E A D I N G E D G E M E T H O D O L O G Y

    U S l K FUTURE S E A K H CONFEREnCES TO RCHIEUE THE APHIS uision In 1993,APHIS. a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was faced with an extraordinary range of demands for change-some from within the organization, some from the federal Administration, and some from the world at large.To focus its change efforts, the agency created an overarching vision and change agenda using a high-involve- ment strategy known as the future search Conference. Through this strategy, all levels of the organization, as well as external stakeholders, can understand and align their actions with proposed changes.As a result, fundamental change is occurring in the organizations mission, processes, technologies, structures, and behaviors.

    by Dan Stone

    About 100 employees from the U.S. Department of Agri- cultures Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) had been brought together for four days in the winter of 1995 at a conference center outside Washington, Dc, to contemplate the future. Their task was to create a vision to guide and focus the myriad forces for change and reinvention that were assaulting their organization-and virtually every other federal agency.

    The event was called a future search conference (FSC), one of a range of planning approaches that are rap- idly replacing traditional strategic planning within many private- and now public-sector organizations. Termed real- time strategic change by Robert Jacobs, one of the fore- most practitioners of this new art, these are events to bring together large groups of people to plot organizational direc- tion from a whole systems perspective. At the conclusion, everyone walks out of the room committed and ready to begin implementation.

    The employees-who represented a broad range of functions and organizational levels-had been carefully selected to join with the APHIS senior management team in crafting this vision. They had been fully briefed about the conference in advance to prepare them to participate. Yet within a few hours, the question that seemed to be on many

    peoples minds was, Is our leadership really serious about this, or have they already made up their mind and are just asking us to lend legitimacy to their vision? This question dogged the participants as they engaged in a variety of dis- cussion groups, ranging from small groups to plenary ses- sions, during the four-day conference. However, by the end of the conference the participants one after another testified that, Yes, this was real; we all put our best thinking out on the table and together came up with a vision that makes sense from all vantage points of this organization.

    Search conferences were invented to achieve just this kind of outcome-a vision that is reflective of and owned by the whole organization. And because of these kinds of successes, this method has been replicated many times within APHIS, as well as in many other federal agencies. FSCs provide an extremely valuable tool in planning change that is timely, given the emphasis on results management that is dominating public-sector management.


    In the fall of 1993, APHIS was facing many of the same demands for change that other federal agencies were fac- ing. The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA)

    * * * Before cofounding WholeSystem Consulting, Inc., in Kensington, Maryland, Dan Stone founded and managed one of the largest organization development groups within the federal government. A coauthor of the National Performance Review report Transforming Organizational Structures, he has consulted widely within the federal government on implementing team-based organizations and transformational change.

    NATIONAL PRODUCTIVITY REVIEW /Winter I996 0 I996 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

    57 CCC 0277-85561961 I60 1057-07

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    had been passed the previous summer and the National Per- formance Review (NPR) had just issued its call for major changes in what government does and how it does it. Fur- ther, the USDA had issued its own blueprint for change, calling for the largest reorganization in its hundred-year his- tory. Also, like many other agencies, APHIS had its own agenda for change based on pressures from within and with- out. From inside APHIS came management initiatives that were already under way in such areas as diversity manage- ment, creating team-based organizations, work and family life, innovative regulatory processes, and customer service. In the programmatic arenas, the pressures for change from outside were even more profound. APHIS is a scientific- technical agency that protects American agriculture prod- ucts from pests and disease and facilitates safe global agricultural trade. Major changes were either anticipated or under way that had a major impact on,APHIS. These included:

    The signing of global free-trade agreements that would require major increases in workloads and shifts in philosophy and practices. Increasing restrictions on chemical control measures, requiring greater development and use of nonchemical, environmentally friendly approaches to pest control. Changes in disease patterns and scientific/ information technologies that increasingly rendered portions of APHISs mission obsolete and opened up new areas of mission focus.

    Amid all this pressure for change, APHISs leaders re- alized that they needed to take time out and reflect on the scope of change, and how they could manage it in a mean- ingful way. In December 1993, the APHIS Management Team (AMT) held a two-day retreat at which they:

    Identified approximately 35 different major change initiatives that were under way or called for in the near future. Recognized that each of these 35 initiatives had its own compelling reason for being undertaken and had its own imperative. Noted that while there was potential for synergy across several of the initiatives, the initiatives tended to be conducted either in isolation from or in competition with one another.

    It also became clear to the AMT that there was no way that the agency had either the resources or the management capacity to conduct 35 different initiatives. Further, the agency could not absorb all this change at once. And fi- nally, the team agreed that one of the most critical needs was to communicate to the agencys employees-6,000

    individuals distributed throughout the United States and overseas-what all this change was about and what it meant to them. Change overload was setting in at all levels of APHIS.

    In response, the AMT resolved to create a framework for focusing the change efforts, coordinating among them, and setting priorities, which meant that some efforts, while important, might have to be dropped in favor of others. The manner in which this framework was established was to build understanding and support among all employees, as well as external stakeholders. The AMT handed the charge to APHISs organization development (OD) staff to provide an option for proceeding. In response, the OD staff sug- gested conducting an FSC.


    One of the methods key proponents, Marv Weisbord, defines future search conferences as an attempt to get the whole system in the room to create a shared vision and strat- egy for an organization. A typical FSC involves 25 to 75 par- ticipants who represent the broadest range of viewpoints and perspectives about the organization and, where possible, in- clude stakeholders from outside the organization.

    Most FSCs last two to three days, during which partici- pants are involved in a series of tasks that are conducted in both small and large groups. Not a loose brainstorming ses- sion, the FSC is a carefully designed process in which each task is linked together to result in a vision that is built on:

    an appreciation of the organizations history; an acknowledgment of the organizations existing strengths and weaknesses; a considered view as to the major opportunities and challenges facing the organization in the future.

    During an FSC, each participants perspective is key, and the resulting vision is one that represents a consensual view of the entire assembly. By the end of the conference, the vision and strategy are confirmed as the organizations direction and participants are asked to begin acting to achieve the vision and to spread the word as widely as possible to their colleagues so that they, too, may be enlisted in achiev- ing the vision. While an FSC is a major event in the life of an organization, it is not an end in and of itself. In fact, the fol- low-up to the conference will determine whether change has occurred. In that sense, the FSC is a catalytic event to get focus and commitment to a change process that will need its own stewardship. This may sound like strategic plan- ning because the two approaches have similar intentions- to produce a blueprint for changing the organization. There are, however, several key differences between the two techniques:


  • Using Future Search Conferences To Achieve the APHIS Virion 59

    FSCs are single events, usually two to three days in length; strategic planning is typically a series of meetings over time (as long as a year or more may be required). FSCs generally involve large numbers of people; strategic planning is often done in a relatively small group. In an FSC, the entire organization is represented, including different levels and functions, as well as external stakeholders; strategic planning is usually done as either a staff function or a top management exercise. When the FSC is completed, there are champions for the outcome throughout the organization; strategic planning results in a few champions. At the conclusion of the FSC, the organization is ready to move immediately into implementation; at the conclusion of strategic planning, there is usually an extensive marketing phase to build ownership over the plan by those who will be saddled with its implementation (and who often resent having been excluded from the planning process).

    The benefits of an FSC must, of course, be weighed against the costs. An effective FSC requires well-trained facilitators to design and conduct the process; if these are not available from within the organization, then consultants will need to be engaged. A facility may need to be rented, and travel costs may be incurred for participants. In addi- tion to paying these costs, the organization must commit time for people to plan the event, participate, and follow

    EXHIBIT I. Transformational Change

    through on decisions that are reached. And a major com- mitment of time must come from the organizations leaders because without their active and continuing involvement in the process, there will be little organizational imperative to act.

    Beyond resources, probably the most fundamental com- mitment that must be weighed is whether the organization genuinely wants to change. Conducting an FSC can create high expectations, putting managers visibly on the line. From that point on, their actions may be scrutinized carefully by people throughout the organization to see whether they are walking the talk of change or simply mouthing rhetoric. If not convinced, the organization may well conclude that the FSC was just the latest fad in managements attempt to ap- pease employees needs for involvement. This will not only damage managements credibility, but also contribute to resistance to any further change effort. If, however, the or- ganization is clear about its intentions and commitment, then the FSC may well be a powerful tool in transforming the very nature of the organization.


    Many of us have been either the architects or targets of organizational change efforts. All too often these results fail, sometimes for obvious reasons and sometimes for not so obvious ones. And even when the efforts succeed, there is often a lingering sense that what was accomplished was ei- ther different from what was desired or less than what was needed.

    One of the major problems with organizational change is that while the structures and processes may change, they are often coopted by the preexisting culture-people adapt the culture around the new structures. So, for example, un- der the guise of moving to teamwork, an organization repli- cates a hierarchical structure, simply substituting new terms like team for the old notion of work group.

    If genuine change is to occur, there must be a change not only in form but also in the organizations underlying beliefs, values, and assumptions. Drawing on the work of Peter Senge of MIT, the APHIS Transformational Change Model (Exhibit 1) defines five major conditions that must be present if there is to be a fundamental change in the beliefs, values, assumptions, and behaviors within an organization:

    1. Vision: There must be a clear picture of what the organization wants to become that is different from what currently exists and that is worthy of wholehearted commitment. Alignment: A critical mass of key stakeholders from within and outside the organization must view the vision as their own and commit to its accomplishment.



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    3. Ernpowennent: Everyone who has a role to play in moving the organization from current reality to the vision must be sufficiently empowered to do so through authority, resources, skills, and accountability.

    mechanical operations of the organization must be compatible with the vision. Results: There must be an ongoing awareness of current reality as contrasted with the vision to sustain the necessary creative tension that will move the organization toward its vision.

    4. Systems/S?ructures/Processes: The various

    5 .

    Using an FSC fulfills many of the requirements of this model by providing a vision that has broad alignment, sets the stage for empowerment, and provides a vehicle for redesigning systems, structures, and processes in line with the vision. By committing to ongoing change, the FSC approach sets a tone of truth-telling and accountability across the organization that can sustain a focus on results into the future. Attempting to conduct an FSC without in- fusing it with these principles will produce suboptimal re- sults at best and, at worst, will send conflicting messages to the organization about the seriousness of managements intentions.


    In keeping with its culture, APHIS was not content to simply import the FSC method. The basic intention and general structure of FSC were maintained, but major adap- tations were made to the original FSC approach to produce a change effort that addressed APHISS unique structural and cultural requirements. Initiated in January 1995, the APHIS plan consisted of five major phases: creating the vision; crafting the change agenda; planning implementa- tion; launching the vision; and managing ongoing change. The overall purpose has been to focus, direct, and achieve the changes needed to best fulfill APHISS mission into the future. Each of these phases is described below.

    Creating the Vision: In January 1995, a group of ap- proximately 100 people from all levels and functions within APHIS, as well as some external stakeholders, met in Solomons Island, Maryland, for three days during which they mapped out APHISs past, current reality, and future challenges. Ten major thematic areas were identified as needing significant change to prepare APHIS for the future. Teams were formed around each of these areas and scenarios were painted for the future. Subjected first to to- tal group input and then revised, these ten scenarios were then reviewed by the AMT in the middle of the ballroom where the conference was held. The AMT endorsed these ten elements as the core of an APHIS vision, and a writing

    ~~ ~ I EXHIBIT 2. The APHIS Vision We bring food to your table, stimulate global

    economies, safeguard agricultural resources, and protect and enhance ecosystems. We are a highly motivated and capable team of diverse individuals who share leadership within an agency community that cares about w r professional and personal lives.

    team was established to craft a single unified vision state- ment (Exhibit 2).

    Crafting the Change Agenda: A five-day conference was held in May 1995 to establish a focused strategy for reaching the vision. Before the conference, teams were formed for each of the ten vision elements-teams of people with interest, talent, and commitment to work on each of the areas. The ten teams-about a hundred people in all- first identified possible core strategies that would help achieve the element of the vision for which they were re- sponsible. The teams strategies were reviewed by the total group and voted upon.

    The results of the voting were tabulated by the AMT, which agreed on an eight-point change agenda for APHIS (Exhibit 3). Each member of the AMT also signed on to be a champion for two elements of the change agenda, thus committing top leadership to the accomplishment of the vi- sion. Each champion was to have a performance contract with the agency administrator, holding them accountable for achieving their elements of the vision.

    TheAMTs decision was shared, to great applause, with the total group, which then continued working in teams to identify possible implementation strategies that could be undertaken for each element of the change agenda. There was now a vision, a change agenda, and champions. But how were champions to champion?

    Planning Implementation: To support AMT members in championing the vision, a two-day workshop was held in August 1995. Before the workshop, core strategy teams were formed around each element of the change agenda. Each core strategy team was composed of champions and aug- mented with a change agent and a project manager.

    The core strategy teams were included in the work- shop, which clarified the role of the strategy team and the individual roles within the strategy team, and provided a planning process for creating the overall action plans within each area. Following the workshop, the strategy teams con- tinued to work on their action plans, and in December 1995 the AMT reviewed and agreed to the plans. Budgets were also approved for funding planned activities. APHIS was


  • Using Future Search Conferences To Achieve the APHIS Viion 61

    EXHIBIT 3. APHISS Eight-hint Change Agenda



    ready to gain a much broader alignment with the vision as a basis for empowering employees to achieve it.

    Launching the Vision: Getting APHIS employees aligned with the vision held several challenges. First, with an agency so far-flung, reaching everyone, or even a criti- cal mass of employees, was no small task. Second, the enor- mous variation across program delivery units required that the broad APHIS vision be translated into comprehensible and actionable ideas at the field level. Third, the way in which the vision was launched had to be congruent with the vision itself-that is, the visions launch had to be customer- oriented, foster continuous learning, and empower employ- ees. Trying to achieve the vision by threats or traditional command-and-control fashion would not work.

    To build this alignment, in January 1996APHIS conducted two major launch workshops in the field-one in Denver and one in Dallas-through which 300 employees were reached. These workshops focused on helping employees understand the vision-where it came from, what it meant, and how it related to their own program delivery activities-and planned ways to achieve it in their own areas of activity. Participants found the workshops to be very useful, and they left with a high level of optimism about the vision.

    Following the two workshops, units throughout APHIS were encouraged to request launch workshops at their own localities-workshops that would be adapted to their unique needs and concerns. Through this process, ap- proximately 35 workshops were held, with a total of over 1,500 employees participating. The AMT recognized that there was a lot of confusion about and potential resistance to the vision, so they participated actively in each of the vision workshops. This not only demonstrated their com- mitment, but also gave the AMT direct feedback about how the employees were receiving the vision.

    The launch phase culminated with a satellite confer- ence, held in June 1996. Broadcast to sites throughout the country and overseas, this event highlighted successes that had occurred to date in moving toward the vision. Also dur- ing the satellite broadcast, the AMT shared the feedback that they had received during the vision launch workshops and how they were going to respond to it. In a very real sense, the organization was demonstrating its capacity to learn-to act, reflect, and adjust.

    Managing Ongoing Change: With the vision launched, the organization now enters the long haul-the steady progress toward achieving the vision. While APHIS has only recently entered this stage of the change, some of the unique challenges that are showing up include:

    Maintaining the commitment of the AMT, especially given turnover in key management positions. Sustaining the interest and energy of the overall organization. Identifying and addressing barriers to achieving the vision in a timely way. Ensuring individual accountability throughout the organization for achieving the vision. Keeping the vision current through periodic reflection and adjustment.

    While the vision has a great deal of momentum, a considerable amount of inertia that exists needs constant attention.


    Changes in APHIS did not begin with the FSC process; however, they have been brought together, focused, and accelerated as a result of this effort. Here are some of the changes that have already occurred or are under way:

    A major new paradigm has been adopted throughout the agency for facilitating safe agricultural trade; new work processes are being reengineered to better integrate diverse disci- plines and make workloads more manageable; hundreds of employees have received special training in free-trade issues and requirements. Team-based organizational initiatives are proliferating throughout APHIS headquarters and in the field, nationally and internationally; a handbook on human resource management practices in a team-based environment was issued in June; workforce diversity skills are being integrated in team training. For the first time in APHIS history, a science


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    leadership conference was held to plan improve- ments in scientific practices and better integrate scientific concerns in policy making. Strategies for collaborating across program lines were explored in an APHISwide conference, and plans are under way for collocating regional offices for field delivery units, better enabling the sharing of resources. Provision of information technology services, which had previously been fragmented and inefficient, is now coordinated throughout APHIS, leading to greater customer focus and productivity.


    The agencys experience with the FSC has provided a rich opportunity to experiment with organizational change, imparting the following seven lessons:

    1. People do not resist change so much as they resist being changed. Perhaps the most widely understood prin- ciple of change-the notion of including people in the changes that affect them-continues to elude many organi- zations. Although employees are often given input into marginal kinds of changes, they are often excluded from the core decisions. Ironically, these core decisions stand to benefit the most from the broad ranges of involvement and the commitment that comes from that inclusion.

    Although employees are often given input into marginal kinds of changes, they are often excluded from the core deciswns. - The tendency to limit participation is often born from

    three concerns: resources, design, and trust. The inclusion of people does require more time, and a participative pro- cess does require careful design. However, both these is- sues can usually be worked out if there is a basic trust that employees will participate on a good-faith basis with value to add.

    2. Managers must sell the problem before they sell the solution. Before people will embrace something that is dramatically different from what currently exists, they must see the need for that change. Equipped with the same in- formation, people tend to draw very similar or compatible conclusions. Each APHIS vision launch workshop began by asking participants what they saw going on around them that created a demand for change. After they shared these ideas, the ATM member shared the problems that had been identified at the FSC, which led to the vision. Across all 35 vision launch workshops there was almost a 100-percent

    correlation between what participants identified and what the FSC had identified. Once participants were able to iden- tify the same issues in their own words, they could see that the vision was a very rational response to the problems fac- ing them.

    3. Organizations must create change by reassuring people that not everything is changing. Change is best ac- cepted when people realize that it is not about achieving something completely new but, rather, the acceleration or extension of capabilities that already exist. Even before the FSC, APHIS was achieving almost every single element of its vision; however, the vision was being achieved in pock- ets, and the agency needed to extend it to the whole organi- zation. As people realized this, their confidence grew in the vision and their capacity to achieve it.

    4. Organizations need to follow a map, but they should make it up as they go. Establishing an overall architecture to the change effort creates a framework for planning ac- tion; however, it is not possible to produce a single plan and implement it as if on automatic pilot. The specific design of each step is born in the previous step. So while operating in the overall change design, it is critical to pay attention to the response of the organization at each step of the way, letting the design of the next step emerge out of the last step.

    5. When creating empowerment, leadership is essen- tial. APHIS began its change process within an institution that has historically operated hierarchically. The systems, procedures, and culture still depend on the direction and approval of those in authority. Attempting to change this by creating a leadership vacuum will only lead to confusion and potentially create serious organizational inconsistencies. Therefore, leaders must take responsibility for embedding the principles and practices of empowerment in the organi- zation, sometimes by using their authority, and certainly by their example and encouragement. For example, within the APHIS FSC, the AMT had the opportunity to meet together to review the input that had been received and endorse the vision. Without that endorsement having been made explicit, the vision would have lacked credibility.

    6. Change is not cheap. Real change can produce ma- jor achievements of efficiency and effectiveness; however, there is an investment side of change. Some of this invest- ment is in the form of change agents, training, conference facilities, and funding of change activities. Acritical dimen- sion of investment is in the time of people to be involved in the change effort, especially at the leadership level. An underresourced change effort can seriously damage the cred- ibility of change, making people cynical about any future efforts to improve the organization. However, a properly


  • Using Future Search Conferences To Achieve the APHIS W o n 63

    resourced, managed effort that has top leaderships com- mitment can produce results that are virtually inconceiv- able when the change effort starts.

    7. Change takes as long as you think it will take. Some people say that it takes 10 to 15 years to change an organi- zations culture. In fact, there are few longitudinal studies of culture change to support blanket assertions in this re- gard. However, the demands for change at this point in time are so profound that waiting ten years to show results will not do. Furthermore, many organizations in the private sec- tor have made profound changes in much shorter time.

    In assuming that major organizational change requires years if not decades, managers may well be enacting a self- fulfilling prophecy. And while it is easy to underestimate the amount of time and effort required to create change, it is also easy to overestimate the timeframe. The result is a change effort that does not receive the intensity and focus

    that could produce quicker results. The rate of change can, in fact, be highly accelerated,

    so long as there is a consistent application of a few basic principles: ensuring broad understanding and ownership of the vision; providing real empowerment, including author- ity, resources, skills, and accountability; making the sys- tems and processes compatible with the vision; and telling the truth about current reality and contrasting it with the vision, so that the organization generates the creative ten- sion needed to produce genuine transformation.

    At first, the large group planning approach sounded radi- cal to many APHIS people. However, it now seems obvious to most that the best way to get something done is to involve everyone in the planning. After its first experience, APHIS has used this approach to address many other kinds of issues. And it will, no doubt, continue to draw on the rich potential of future search conferences technology to respond to the de- mands for change that show no sign of letting up.



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