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
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
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
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
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.