Making the Impossible Possible Leading Extraordinary Performance The Rocky Flats Story by Kim Cameron and Marc Lavine

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an excerpt from Making the Impossible Possible Leading Extraordinary Performance The Rocky Flats Story by Kim Cameron and Marc Lavine Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers An Introduction to the Impossible
an excerpt from Making the Impossible Possible Leading Extraordinary Performance The Rocky Flats Story by Kim Cameron and Marc Lavine Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers An Introduction to the Impossible Once in a great while we find an organization whose performance is so much better than expectations that it is difficult to believe that this level of success is possible for example, the Revolutionary Army in 1776, the John Wooden era UCLA basketball teams, or the success of the Grameen Bank movement. Most people hold in their minds standards of what excellence represents, and when we encounter performance that markedly exceeds those standards, we are left to wonder how such an aberration is possible. This book tells the story of positively deviant performance the achievement of extraordinary success well beyond the expectations of almost any outside observer. We present the story of an organization that reached a level of performance that was considered impossible, so that adjectives such as spectacular, extraordinary, remarkable, and astonishing are apt descriptors. Our account describes how a single organization experienced a devastating loss the loss of mission and subsequent languishing performance and then, despite its problematic circumstances, achieved a level of success well beyond expectations. Simply put, this organization accomplished what most knowledgeable people thought was impossible. The story examines the key enablers that account for this extraordinary level of performance. We explain the leadership principles that can be helpful to individuals in other organizations who are interested in fostering their own spectacular success. 2 AN INTRODUCTION TO THE IMPOSSIBLE Rocky Flats This book examines the cleanup and closure of America s most dangerous nuclear weapons production facility. This facility, located near the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, produced plutonium and enriched uranium triggers for nuclear weapons from 1952 to Every nuclear weapon in the current U.S. arsenal contains triggers produced at Rocky Flats. Employees worked with the most dangerous materials known to mankind, and an ABC Nightline program in 1994 identified several buildings on the site as the most dangerous buildings in America because of the radioactive materials being handled, the threat of a disastrous nuclear accident, and the possibility of radioactive pollution escaping and contaminating the surrounding area. The Rocky Flats site consisted of approximately 800 buildings, with about 3 million square feet under roof. Located on the 6,000-acre site was an enormous amount of hazardous material tons of weaponsgrade nuclear material including plutonium and enriched uranium, tens of thousands of cubic meters of transuranic acid waste and lowlevel radioactive liquids, and rooms in some buildings that had radioactive pollution levels reaching beyond infinity on the measuring devices. Contamination existed in walls, floors, ceilings, ductwork, surrounding soil, and, potentially, groundwater. Environmentalists, citizen action groups, state regulatory agencies, federal oversight agencies, and Congress all were understandably distrustful, skeptical, and largely antagonistic toward Rocky Flats. The largest industrial fire in the nation s history had occurred at the site in 1969, and other accidents in the 1950s and 1960s were viewed as evidence that this site was intolerably dangerous. Protests, lawsuits, and an adversarial climate were continuously associated with Rocky Flats. Antagonistic and hostile relationships existed with regulators. A combative stance had been adopted toward the activist community. Noncooperative relationships existed with surrounding states and with other Department of Energy (DOE) sites, resulting in a siege mentality razor wire fences and guards toting M-16 rifles that kept outsiders at a distance. The three unions representing workers steelworkers, construction workers, and security guards also had antagonistic relationships with contract company managers, so that formally filed grievances were common among the workforce. Safety was significantly worse than the average at other government facilities and in the construction industry AN INTRODUCTION TO THE IMPOSSIBLE 3 in general. A climate of secrecy, insularity, self-protection, and resistance to change inhibited any hope of a major transformation. In 1989, because of suspicion that unreported pollution might be occurring, the FBI raided the facility and suddenly shut the place down. Workers immediately lost a mission to perform and were accused of being criminal polluters. In 1992, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons program was permanently discontinued by order of President George H. W. Bush, so the possibility of continuing to do the jobs for which they were well trained was completely eliminated for Rocky Flats employees. More radioactive waste existed at Rocky Flats than at any other facility in the country. Consequently, DOE conducted a careful study of the residual pollution at the site in 1995 and concluded that the cleanup and closure of the facility would require more than 70 years and cost at least $36 billion. Similar estimates were developed for thirteen additional DOE sites throughout the United States. An RFP (request for proposal) containing these estimates was circulated to potential contracting companies. The company that won the contract in 1995 was Kaiser-Hill. What makes the story of Rocky Flats worth telling is the extraordinary level of success achieved success in terms of speed, quality, efficiency, productivity, innovation, and profitability. As the largest and most complex environmental cleanup project in U.S. history, Rocky Flats was the first nuclear weapons facility to be decommissioned and closed anywhere in the world. But the complexity and uniqueness of the task is not the key message. Rather, the story is worth telling because the entire project was completed 60 years early and at a cost savings of approximately $30 billion in taxpayer funds. In contrast, the other DOE clean-up sites are approximately ontime (or late) and on-budget (or over) in accomplishing the same kinds of tasks. By October 2005, all 800 buildings had been demolished, all radioactive waste had been removed, and all soil and water had been remediated to a level that exceeded original federal standards for cleanliness by a factor of 13. Simply stated, the impossible was achieved at Rocky Flats. Not only did Kaiser-Hill accomplish what had never been done before, but it was done in a time frame and at a cost that defied any reasonable expectation. To repeat, the other DOE clean-up sites are approximately on-time (or late) and onbudget (or over) in accomplishing the same kinds of tasks. The story 4 AN INTRODUCTION TO THE IMPOSSIBLE of Rocky Flats represents one of the most dramatic examples of organizational success in history. In a New York Times report (2005:A21) on the day of project completion, Senator Wayne Allard of Colorado called the project the best example of a nuclear cleanup success story ever. Explaining Extraordinary Success The book explains how this success occurred. It highlights the key enablers the levers, techniques, and practices that explain how this extraordinary performance was realized. Our aim is to help leaders identify which enablers are most effective in producing transformational change and how they can create outstanding success. It is important to point out that these leadership principles are not intended to be restricted to a single organizational type or to a single circumstance. Using Rocky Flats as the backdrop for these leadership principles does not constrain them to a nuclear facility. Rather, the principles that emerged from this investigation may apply in many circumstances and to a wide variety of leaders. We hope that leaders will find them helpful in situations where transformational change is required, major challenge is encountered, or the opportunity to do something great is present. Success this dramatic and extraordinary cannot be explained by a few simple rules of thumb or a top 10 list. Rather, the enablers that account for this kind of success are numerous and sometimes complex. We organize them into four basic themes by utilizing a well-developed theoretical framework. Our intent in using this framework is to highlight the general leadership principles that underlie the key enablers. That is, we want to help leaders understand how the enablers work and how they can produce extraordinary performance. This theoretical framework the Competing Values Framework is explained in chapter 4. The story of how the impossible became possible at Rocky Flats is told from the standpoint of the individuals who were involved in the change. Adopting this approach provides a glimpse of how people experienced this dramatic change, what strategies were being contemplated, and what factors the participants themselves believed were the keys to success. It also highlights the fact that no successful change in organizations at least no significant transformational change is due to a lone heroic leader or to a single vision developed AN INTRODUCTION TO THE IMPOSSIBLE 5 by an individual at the top. It is commonplace to identify single leaders as the chief architects of spectacular successes, and we often attribute remarkable organizational achievements to a sole person s talents or genius. Icons such as Jack Welch at General Electric, Steven Jobs at Apple, Bill Gates at Microsoft, Fred Smith at Federal Express, Sam Walton at Wal-Mart, Warren Buffet at Berkshire Hathaway, and a host of others are credited with being the chief explanations for the remarkable achievements of their respective companies. On the other hand, the story of Rocky Flats is a story of many leaders, many interwoven activities, many constituencies, and many heroic endeavors that all combined to produce a remarkable story of success. In our account of the Rocky Flats transformation, we rely largely on the words of the participants in the project the leaders who accounted for its success. We do not tell the story in a linear fashion or as a novel might unfold. Rather, we reproduce quotations and observations from a variety of individuals. These people represent a broad spectrum of participants, including federal government oversight personnel from DOE and the EPA, local elected officials, state officeholders, members of the U.S. Congress and their staffs, representatives of environmental and citizen watchdog groups, managers and supervisors working in the Rocky Flats facilities, union leaders, and union members doing the daily work of cleanup and closure. We use direct quotations and some paraphrased observations from these individuals, all of whom provide unique perspectives, insightful descriptions, and helpful explanations for the success of this remarkable endeavor. Positive Deviance From our analysis of these interviews as well as from a variety of additional sources of data, we were able to draw some conclusions about how Kaiser-Hill was able to achieve such spectacular success at Rocky Flats (see appendix 2 for a description of the data sources and data analysis procedures). Of course, we risk grossly oversimplifying the key reasons for success by attempting to identify one summary statement that characterizes what was learned from our in-depth investigation. Nevertheless, it is clear to us that the overarching leadership lesson learned from Rocky Flats can be summarized in a single statement, although it belies the complexity that undergirds this straightforward observation: 6 AN INTRODUCTION TO THE IMPOSSIBLE The impossible was made possible by adopting an abundance approach to change rather than a deficit approach. An abundance approach to change is deceptively simple. It refers to the striving for positive deviance, pursuing the best of the human condition, and working to fulfill the highest potential of organizations and individuals. An abundance approach focuses on resilience, flourishing, and vitality, rather than mere goal achievement. It pursues extraordinarily positive individual and organizational outcomes. An abundance approach stands in contrast to a problem-solving or a deficit-based approach to change. Rather than being consumed by difficulties and obstacles, an abundance approach is consumed by strengths and human flourishing. Rather than an exclusive focus on problem-solving, an abundance approach pursues possibility-finding. Rather than addressing change that is motivated by challenges, crises, or threats in which the role of the leader is to effectively address problems or deficiencies the abundance approach addresses affirmative possibilities, potentialities, and elevating processes and outcomes. One way to illustrate the abundance approach is to consider figure I.1, which represents a continuum of deviance (see Cameron, 2003). Usually the word deviance connotes a negative condition, so labeling someone a deviant usually represents a negative evaluation. However, the basic definition of deviance is merely an aberration from the norm or a violation of expectations. Therefore, deviance can occur as a positive aberration from normal conditions as well as a negative aberration, as represented in Figure I.1. Look first at the top line in the figure. This continuum contains three points one anchoring the left end (negative deviance), one the middle point (an absence of deviance or a normal or expected condition), and one anchoring the right end (positive deviance). Consider the top line of the figure body first. It refers to physiological functioning. When it comes to physical health, the large majority of medical research, and almost all of a physician s time, is spent helping people move from the left point on the continuum (illness) to the middle point (health). The middle point represents an absence of illness or injury, or the normal condition. Pharmaceutical companies allocate billions of dollars a year to develop compounds that assist individuals in moving from the left point to the middle point to an AN INTRODUCTION TO THE IMPOSSIBLE 7 Figure I.1 A CONTINUUM ILLUSTRATING POSITIVE DEVIANCE Negative Deviance Normal Positive Deviance Individual: Physiological Illness Health Vitality Psychological Illness Health Flow Organizational: Revenues Losses Profits Generosity Effectiveness Ineffective Effective Excellence Efficiency Inefficient Efficient Extraordinary Quality Error-prone Reliable Flawless Ethics Unethical Ethical Benevolence Adaptation Threat rigidity Coping Flourishing Relationships Harmful Helpful Honoring Approach: Problem solving Abundance gaps gaps (SOURCE: Cameron, 2003) absence of illness or a reduction in symptoms of illness. Almost all physiological research, in other words, focuses on the gap between the left point and the middle point. Unfortunately, much less is known about how to get people from the middle point on the continuum to a state of wellness, vitality, or Olympic fitness on the right end. Once people feel well, they usually don t see a doctor, and almost no medical scientists study them. Moreover, almost no (legal) pharmaceutical compounds exist to foster a physiological condition that might be described as positively deviant vitality. We know more about solving physiological problems than about creating vitality and flourishing health. Psychologically the same thing is typical. More than 95 percent of psychological research published in the last 50 years has focused on 8 AN INTRODUCTION TO THE IMPOSSIBLE closing the gap between the left point on the continuum and the middle point that is, focusing on how to overcome depression, anxiety, stress, or emotional difficulties (Seligman, 2002b). Once psychological and emotional health is at the middle point no illness or psychological difficulties it is very seldom the subject of serious scientific investigation. Little is known about how to get people from a condition of mental and emotional health to a state of flourishing, positive energy, or what is sometimes referred to in psychology as flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Most of what we know about human physiology and psychology is how to overcome weakness or illness so that we can reach a state of normality, or an absence of deviance. Now consider organizations and the common motivations and approaches used to change them. Organizations, by definition, exist in order to organize. They are fundamentally mechanisms to control human activity, or to reduce deviance from expectations. By definition, they reinforce the middle point on the continuum organizing reduces variation. Usually organizational change is motivated by ineffective, inefficient, or unprofitable performance, mistakes or unethical decisions, conflict-ridden or rigid relationships, or problems being encountered. Leaders in organizations are usually astute in diagnosing key challenges, major obstacles, and important difficulties. The leader s job is often defined as defining, diagnosing, and overcoming major obstacles and closing deficit gaps. Effective leaders are typically defined as effective problem-solvers. The gap between the middle of figure I.1 and the right-hand side, however, is an abundance gap the difference between successful performance and spectacular performance. The organization is motivated to change from being profitable, effective, efficient, or reliable in performance, for example, to being extraordinary, flawless, generous, or benevolent. Outcomes produce positive benefit for more than the organization itself, and a condition of abundance makes possible the flourishing and success of others outside the organization as well. The abundance approach motivates change in organizations based on the pursuit of a greater good and an opportunity to achieve positively deviant results. Benefits extend beyond the immediate time frame and beyond the advantage of those directly involved. The results possess profound purpose because they are connected to important personal values and to the core meaning of the organization. The abundance approach assumes that human flourishing, vir- AN INTRODUCTION TO THE IMPOSSIBLE 9 tuousness, and the best of the human condition are the outcomes being pursued (see Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003; Cameron, Bright, & Caza, 2004). The Rocky Flats story is a story of abundance and positive deviance. The extraordinary success achieved extends well beyond even the most optimistic estimates of what would constitute a successful outcome. At the heart of the Rocky Flats success story lies an approach to change that led to positive deviance extraordinary success well beyond expectations for effective change. Rocky Flats succeeded because it was, fundamentally, a transformation driven by the closing of abundance gaps rather than the closing of deficit gaps. Simply put, an abundance approach made the impossible possible. Leadership Enablers and Principles Although there are a large number of interesting aspects of this story of success, we concentrated our study on the enablers that leaders used to spark positively deviant performance. Our research uncovered 16 such enablers, and they are discussed in detail in chapters 5 through 8. These enablers are the levers that leaders used to accomplish their objectives. Most important, these enablers can be summarized as four general themes that appear to contradict each other. One theme focuses on innovation, risk-taking, visionary thinking, and symbolic leadership, whereas another theme focuses on the opposite maintaining stability, carefully controlling processes, precise objectives, and financial discipline. Pursuing these two themes simultaneously that is, fostering chaos and control at the same time helped foster positive deviance. A third theme focuses on supportive interpersonal relationships, developing human capital, openness, and nurturing a colla
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