Using future search conferences to achieve the APHIS vision

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<ul><li><p>L E A D I N G E D G E M E T H O D O L O G Y </p><p>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. </p><p>by Dan Stone </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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 </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>FACING A FUTURE OF CHANGE </p><p>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) </p><p>* * * 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. </p><p>NATIONAL PRODUCTIVITY REVIEW /Winter I996 0 I996 John Wiley &amp; Sons, Inc. </p><p>57 CCC 0277-85561961 I60 1057-07 </p></li><li><p>58 Dan Stone </p><p>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: </p><p>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. </p><p>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: </p><p>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. </p><p>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 </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>WHAT IS A FUTURE SEARCH CONFERENCE? </p><p>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. </p><p>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: </p><p>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. </p><p>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: </p><p>NATIONAL PRODUCTIVITY REVIEW I Winter 1996 </p></li><li><p>Using Future Search Conferences To Achieve the APHIS Virion 59 </p><p>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). </p><p>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 </p><p>EXHIBIT I. Transformational Change </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>THE ELEMENTS OF TRANSFORMATIONAL CHANGE </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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: </p><p>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. </p><p>2. </p><p>NATIONAL PRODUCTIVITY REVIEW /Winter I996 </p></li><li><p>60 Dan Stone - </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>4. Systems/S?ructures/Processes: The various </p><p>5 . </p><p>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. </p><p>IMPLEMENTING THE FSC PROCESS AT APHIS </p><p>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...</p></li></ul>