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Before/After: A Tale of Two Companies

Organization 1: It is the worst of times.

There is no reason to go to work as I see no possibilities and have no value for the people there. The environment could be described as uncomfortable, unhappy, stressful, non-communicative…in a way, you could say it is down right dysfunctional. It’s so broken as to cause heartburn, sleeplessness and alcohol abuse. Even families report that their home life is effected due to such miserable work conditions for the parents and spouses. The problems are creating a downward spiral because in a small town there really are no secrets. Hiring will soon be impossible. No one, including the owners, wants to work here.

Organization 2: It is the best of times.
I look forward to getting to work and taking on the challenges in front of us. The possibilities seem endless. There is an openness about the culture that allows everyone to speak their minds and feel that their individual contributions have value. On top of that, we have a communications model that allows a diverse team to listen to each other and collaborate. The rewards of progress, contribution and purpose are so tangible that we take them home and use them to become better parents and spouses. In the end, we all love each other and that’s what it is all about. It is absolutely wonderful to have a “family” at work to share our joy and love with.


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Take these two different organizations described above and then try and understand that they are actually the same place, Newport Furniture Parts. The first is a description from the testimonies of workers on how it felt to be part of the company in the fall of 2011. The second description is from a recent phone conference with those same employees in the fall of 2012…just one year later. It begs the question, “What happened here?”
What happened was a relationship of immense proportions at exactly the right time. The company was definitely in crisis and the owner had started taking the initiative to look for solutions. He considered all manner of retreats, seminars, really anything that might help and had even gone so far as to get some bids for help. One such connection that was made was with Dr. Jeffrey Howe of Dovetail Partners Inc. and Growing Edge Facilitation thanks to the Sustainable Forest Futures (SFF). There was something about what he had to share about organizations and organizational health that resonated with what Newport Furniture Parts was looking for and thanks to the support from SFF, they decided to give it a shot.

Dr. Howe and Patrick O’Brien of Growing Edge began by creating a proposal for organizational development that would start the process of assessment and then lead into possibilities for transformation. However, when the Newport team heard what was being proposed, the reaction to the work was not exactly what you would call ecstatic. The words used by the leadership team to describe what was being proposed sounded like this: “Not sold at all,” “Very nervous,” “Didn’t know what to expect,” “What in the hell are these guys about?” and “They must really be nuts.”

It’s common to be suspicious, afraid and doubtful when someone suggests that a whole culture change is not only necessary, but possible in one year’s time. This is especially true when you are proposing a whole new language. Words like purpose, values, vision, culture and well-being seem to many to have very little to do with a dysfunctional factory environment where people spend most of their day with their nose to the grindstone. The terms don’t exactly give you a tangible solution that many are looking for but indeed, it is exactly ideas like these that can lift an organization up high enough to see not just the problems but also the roots of them. Consider the problems listed above for “Organization 1.” If someone has a hard time going to work, perhaps they don’t feel like they have a purpose, there is little to no value in what they are doing, the culture is not supportive of people, and on and on.

Perhaps most impressive at Newport Furniture Parts was the fact that the leadership team was able to see the need. As soon as they were given the tools and language to identify some of the missing elements at the organization and discover possibilities to make changes, they were off and running. It was like a light was turned on, a light of possibilities that might make happiness a reality. The possibilities were focused on what might bring understanding and respect into a team that before was more about me/you or us/them.

Specifically, what Jeffrey and Patrick were able to do was to help the leadership team at Newport find out who they wanted to be and then encourage them that they could get there. This starts with personal purpose, identifying strengths in individuals, deciding on what your vision is for the organization and its culture and then laying out a list of values. It also means that there is a good deal of coaching to understand how someone can go from an interrogator to a compassionate teacher. That is really one of the beautiful parts of the work. There is the opportunity to pass on tools, skills and wisdom and then step back and watch others teach the people around them. It spreads and before you know it, the culture of a place, even a whole community, has been transformed.

And what about these aforementioned tools? They are also an important part of the work called Organizational Development. For example, a communication tool such as the Mobius Model is key if you want to foster mutual understanding. It allows everyone involved to see not just where you are in a conversation, but where you are going and this helps to dissipate emotion and mistrust. It also provides a common language, so that instead of talking about problems, blame, and roadblocks, everyone can agree instead to identify “missing elements.”

Today at Newport Furniture Parts, the work continues on, much of it being led by those in charge. People have come back who left during those previous tough times to be blown away by the changes. There is almost a sense of disbelief in those who have been through the before and after, but the joy is evident and trust is being rebuilt. Workers and leaders who previously were afraid to speak openly for fear of retribution have shown up with a desire to use conflict creatively. Those who were afraid to stand out are now delegating responsibility to others. In the words of one of those who has returned, “I have gone from being shamed to being honored for who I am.”

The work has definitely impacted the people, but not just within the organization. It has spread to the community and families surrounding Newport Furniture Parts. The leaders report that the good work “ripples” to their personal life. It is common to hear things such as, “I was able to talk to my wife and kids in a new way,” “there is space for me to be a mom,” “I can go home and actually am happy,” “what I could take home has been really positive as a father and husband.” The reality is that Newport Furniture Parts has become a really desirable place to work. The community is aware of it and it has even spread to the customers and vendors that work with Newport. The Vision and Values of the company are so pivotal that they have become part of each presentation, enhancing relationships and improving sales.

The subtlety of what was just said should not be missed. What differentiates this work from mere consulting is the fact that you can own it and take it wherever your imagination allows. It is not a lifelong dependence on someone or something, but really the empowerment to make things better, to not accept the status quo. Through thoughtful processes and tested tools, possibilities abound. Therein lies the evidence of truly important and good work.

The journey for Newport Furniture Parts thus far, has been one of huge leaps and bounds in terms of emotional and even physical healing. It has meant becoming vulnerable and open to change. It has given them purpose and made life worth living again. In the words of one of the owners, Dave La Force, “At the end of the day, I want everyone that walks through our doors to come in happy and I want them to leave happy. If we can succeed at that, my purpose at NFP will be a success.”

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