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Mythic Transformation

Harrison Owen

 

 

 

Mythic Transformation

Sometimes the most important changes we need to make

are in the stories we tell

An interview with Harrison Owen, by Leslie Ehle

One of the articles in Living Business (IC#11)

Autumn 1985, Page 40

Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

 

 

 

Harrison Owen is a management consultant and one of the initial

instigators of the Organizational Transformation movement. An expansion on

his ideas, Open Space - an introduction to Organization Transformation and

the use of myth and ritual, is available from H.H. Owen & Co., 8225 Stone

Trail Drive, Bethesda, MD 20817.

 

Leslie: You do a lot of work using myth and story as a tool for changing

organizations. What started that?

 

Harrison: I started out being an old testament scholar; my field was

Semitic languages and literature. Out of that work came what I suppose I

would now call a general theory of myth: how it works, what it does in a

culture. In trying to make some sense out of the mostly biblical

literature, plus other kinds from the ancient period, what dawned on me

was that this literature was the product of a very conscious and

sophisticated myth making effort.

If you know anything about Oriental or Biblical Studies at that time, you'll know that

these ideas made me about as popular as a skunk at a garden party. By the middle of

the 60s, I decided I needed to do rather than think, so I wandered off into SNCC

[Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership

 Conference], then to the Peace Corps, Vista, Office of Economic Opportunity, National

 Institutes of Health, and Veteran's Administration.

Then in 1977 I did a management seminar at M.I.T. in which I described my

work as creating myths and rituals. I did this as kind of a joke, but the

result was that after six hours of defending this thing, I was quite aware

that that was indeed what I did. So I resigned from the V.A., created my

own corporation, and said what I needed to do was systematically think

through what I'd been doing almost by intuition and happenstance. I'd been

taking everything I knew about myth, ritual and culture and applying that

to large systems and organizations, as a way of understanding it, or

changing it, or what have you. I got some clients who were crazy enough to

allow me to look at their myths and rituals. I also did some other things

for them for which they paid me. What I was really trying to do was take

the general theory of mythology that I'd done and develop that into an

articulate practice. What do you do? How do you make those interventions?

How do you live in that sort of way?

And then, what I guess is now 4 years or 5 years ago, there was just this

rash of interesting books: Alvin Toffler's Third Wave; Marilyn Ferguson's

Aquarian Conspiracy. Probably infinitely more significant than any of

those, although less popular, was Ken Wilbur's Up From Eden. What hit me

was that my particular academic background gave me a particularly

interesting way of looking at the phenomena of transformation, especially

in organizations.

What the mythology of an organization is about is the odyssey of

transformation. It superficially talks about other things but what it

really images is that transformational journey of the collective spirit,

from whenever it was to wherever it is, and what happened along the way.

That convergence of themes - myth, ritual, culture, being the expression

of transformation and transformation being a real live phenomena -

suggested to me that I and maybe others ought to take a hard look at

transformation and elevate it from the level of "golly gee whiz" to

something that you intentionally and consciously assist organizations

through, say something intelligent about, and prepare people to undergo.

One thing I was clear on then was you don't do transformation to some

organization, the environment takes care of that pretty well - sort of

like the dinosaur. But there's a midwifing role, and if you want to

understand the process of transformation in organizations, your primary

data is probably going to appear in the mythology and ritual of the

organization.

There are some themes which relate very powerfully to what I at least

understand Organizational Transformation to be all about. One is that

there is an openness in the whole thing. I use the words "open space" a

lot. My sense is that transformation occurs when open spaces are created

in individuals or organizations so that it becomes quite clear that the

old way of being, whatever that was, the old life form is no longer

serviceable or useful.

 

Leslie: There's a basic concept in a lot of metaphysical writing of

creating a vacuum, of clearing out and eliminating to make space so that

something new can be drawn in. Nature abhors a vacuum so the idea is you

help create a vacuum.

 

Harrison: It's a very common but very scary concept because what happens

with open space is that when it's initially experienced, at the onset of

transformation, it's frightful because all that was isn't anymore. It's

AT&T on the morning of January the 1st when they are no longer the phone

company, and it's absolutely unclear what they are going to become. But

somewhere along the line the perceived value of the open space switches

from negative to positive and what was end and destruction becomes

beginning, possibility and opportunity. Built into that is the real root

of celebration and joy. Real joy comes out of traversing the open space,

engaging in the process of transformation. There are real moments of

terror when the old forms dissolve and it becomes quite clear that it

isn't that we were wrong but we were just looking at the wrong things.

Leslie: I'd like to talk about your own work with organizations using myth

and ritual and how you've gone about doing that, identifying stories in

organizations and how that's been useful for midwifing transformations.

Harrison: It just started with the idea of open space. Open space by

itself is not nothing, but it's always bounded by something - something

sets the context. Don't think about it in physical terms, like the corner

of 42nd and Vine, but almost as a psychic space, and then take that one

step further. What a good story does is create bounded open space within

which, under the guidance of the author, you begin to experience a reality

that you've never known before. For example, in The Old Man and the Sea

all Hemmgway really tells you is that there's an old man, a big sea, a

small boat, a large fish, a hot day and a great deal of anxiety and

searching of the soul. And not much more than that. But what Hemmgway has

done is create the bounded context of open space within which spirit

appears. I would say exactly the same thing about myth. What myth does is

enable us to image spirit in very powerful and primal kinds of ways.

My sense of transformation is that it is literally an odyssey of spirit.

It intrigues me that folks keep talking about, what is the transformed

organization, as if there is a static thing which is now transformed.

Transformation for me is not the transformed organization, it's a

condition of becoming. It's what people should be getting out of Tom

Peters' In Search of Excellence. They think what they are looking at are

the specific marks of excellent organizations and forget that the title is

In Search of Excellence. It's a quest, an odyssey, a journey, not the

destination. There is a map and there is a territory, but something goes

over the territory. And what we need to ask is, "What is it that's

traversing this territory?"

The clue is given in the words. Transformed means some thing or some

entity journeys through form or forms. Well, what is this traveler? You

can call it what you will, spirit or energy or X, but that still just

gives it a name. What mythology gives us is a way of imaging that

traveler. The good news is that we can really see spirit in the myth, just

as Hemingway evokes that powerful spirit which is the old man.

What the stories of an organization do is literally bring to powerful

consciousness the essence of the spirit of that organization. And if

transformation is the journey of the spirit in its quest for excellence,

then the mythology becomes the mechanism through which we can map, track,

or image that journey.

We've discovered we have exactly the same problem as the physicists. What

they ended up doing is telling a likely story, otherwise known as a

theoretical model, about this quantum. It's interesting, no one ever knows

what the quantum is. It's the whatness which emerges as quantum theory.

But one of the things that helped them out was that they found that the

quantum did marvelous things to photographic plates or cloud chambers -

kind of Fourth of July stuff. So you could really image the quantum. You

couldn't get a hold of it but as a second level derivative you could see

where it was and where it went and kind of what happened in between. It's

a little crude but that's what myth does. Myth is sort of a cloud chamber

in which spirit is imaged on its course.

When you look at the mythological structure of an organization it's not

one story or the other story, it's the dynamic interrelationship between

all the stories creating that resonance. You can think of the organization

as a drum head, and each one of the stories is sort of a tuning knob on

that drum head. What you end up with is the sound of the organization.

Myth appears through certain very concrete things. When you hear the

mythology of any organization there are no trumpets sounding. It's just

tales of everyday things. It appears in color, form, sound, vocabulary of

that organization. When it comes to understanding or changing, or

assisting an organization, it may well be that the color on the wall is

the critical piece of the story that needs to be changed. They don't need

any memos. They just simply need to repaint the place. Or the sound is

wrong, the smell is wrong, or the light is wrong, or some combination.

Think of myth as this mechanism in imaging of spirit, and transformation

as the journey of spirit in search of a better way to be, then the

theoretical model of what I do with organizations is pretty clear. I just

listen to their stories until I can find the shape of their spirit. Then

the questions become things like, is it coherent? Does it all seem to be

going in one direction? Is it positive and constructive? Is it enhancing

or non-enhancing?

 

 

Leslie: What happens when you start to do this?

 

Harrison: I'll give you an example. My favorite client is a group of 9

cities and 4 counties. These are the cities of Newport News, Norfolk, all

of tidewater Virginia, it's everything from Williamsburg, Virginia, down

to the Carolina border, from the Dismal Swamp on one side to the Atlantic

Ocean on the other. These folks had spent the last 300 years, more or

less, fighting each other. And by and large it didn't make any difference

because that wasn't tidewater, it was backwater and nobody cared. Fifteen

or twenty years ago the private sector leadership in the area started a

massive renewal program, and literally rebuilt Norfolk which then

triggered off a lot of other development. Six years ago it was as if the

body was in great shape but they had forgotten about the soul. They had

all these marvelous new buildings but there was an emptiness there and

there was also a question of what next? Where was the spirit going to go

on its journey? And one of the things at that point, that they were saying

in a scattered way, was that whatever it is that happens ought to have

something to do with unification. There is no way that this region can

develop if we're all at each other's throats.

This private sector group tried, using standard techniques, to bring the

folks together. They used what I call the "one step at a time" sort of

shuttle diplomacy. All the firemen would meet together and there would be

love and light for the first day, with all kinds of plans for what they

were going to do together. On the second day all of the agenda for the

last 300 years would sit on the table with the Fire Chiefs and by the

third day they were going home saying we'll never do anything together.

Not only were they getting nowhere, but they were creating what they

perceived to be a constant, irreversible pattern of failure.

In any event, I got in with these folks and my heart bled for them. If you

know tidewater Virginia it's absolutely gorgeous. There's water

everywhere, the harbor is impressive but is not like New York where

everything is so big and so far away, but it is the biggest harbor in the

United States. So the issue was, how do you bring them together? So at a

cocktail party I quoted them some deep theoretical stuff from South

Pacific, which went, you gotta' have a dream or how are you going to have

a dream come true? What I said was, all of the little technical things you

do will make no sense at all until or unless you can organize all of this

within a common dream. And I think we can specify the nature of that

dream, not what it is but how it ought to work. That dream has clearly got

to be big enough so that all 9 cities and 4 counties fit inside, it ought

to be attractive enough that they want to get into it - it really ought to

feel good. And lastly, it ought to be do-able in terms of their history

and potential market.

One thing led to another and they said, "Well, that sounds very

interesting, Mr. Owen, but what would you have in mind?" Well, first off

it's gotta' be your dream, but if I were sitting here by the largest

natural harbor in the United States and maybe the world, I might dream

something like, why shouldn't this region be the place in the world from

which the oceans are going to be exploited for the benefit of mankind?

It became a very powerful thing in my own thinking, to think of the

Hampton Roads, the harbor, as the open space. In the mythology of those

cities everybody else was on the other side of the woods. So the whole

issue was to make the Hampton Roads operate symbolically in the

consciousness of the people not as barrier and end but rather as beginning

and opportunity.

I had a client down there, a large medical center, which had given me

access to all the cities and all of the people, so what I did was collect

war stories, the sort of stories people will tell if you walked into a

cocktail party and said "I'm new in town. What is this place? Tell me

about it." They'll start out with the official propaganda but the whole

technique is that you don't want to overawe them with surveys or anything

else. It's storytelling, and no storyteller ever puts a story down in a

survey form. Nobody ever told a good story when there wasn't a good

listener who was also going to trade stories.

So I get right into it, just listening to the kind of stories that they're

telling. And then what I do is I map those stories out on what I call a

mythograph, and what that begins to give you is sort of a cloud chamber

image of what is the spirit flow in that place.

One of the stories is pretty obvious. I asked somebody one day, how long

does it take you to get from Newport News to Norfolk? The distance is just

about a mile and a half, but through a tunnel, with total physical

time lapse, ten minutes maybe. Answer: two and a half hours. Now, where

that came from is that there used to be a ferry, and by the time you got

your car down there, loaded, got it off, it was two and a half hours. That

was the frame, the paradigm, the spectacles through which the folks from

Newport News viewed the people in Norfolk. Physically, that statement was

absolutely false. In terms of spirit, it was precisely accurate.

You're not dealing with an infinite number of stories. Even large

organizations don't have that many stories, a dozen or so, that really

move spirit. So I do my mythograph, get a sense of what the image and flow

of spirit is and then really start to imagine what a different story might

sound like, built out of the old stories. (Everybody's always creating

brand new stories but that does not acknowledge the enormous conservative

thrust and inertia built into human beings. If the story images your

spirit, that's your life. Change my story, you change my life which

otherwise means you kill me. So I tend to hold on to that.)

What we did was begin to orchestrate this process, and the story about the

exploitation of the ocean for the benefit of mankind really became kind of

a frame or direction. We created, through a series of training sessions,

briefings, press conferences, a group of story tellers. We ended up with

forty folks who were the folks who ran the area - the heads of the banks,

various people who head major business and community groups. Three or four

days gave them a sense of how you really tell good stories, and how you

create structures which tell stories. We created something called the

"Future of Hampton Roads." It looked like an organization, but it was

really an opportunity to reflect - through its structure and what it did -

this quest for a new story. It didn't even tell a new story, it was the

intentional open space within which all of the residents of Hampton Roads

could gather and weave out the story.

As they evolved that new story, over a two-year period, truly remarkable

things occurred. They went from being the 143rd market area in the United

States to being 33rd, and you're talking billions of dollars. And you say,

"Well, how'd they do that?" Well, they used to be 3 SMSA's [Standard

Metropolitan Statistical Area]; that was the way they aggregated

themselves because they were always fighting; and once they agreed to be

one, they were in the top 50 immediately. The only difference was

perception. They united all the United Ways, all the Chambers of Commerce

(they used to have 21 of each), created a regional sports authority; they

are now letting bids on a new regional stadium.

 

And the only thing that's changed is perception.