The company needed new gunslingers to drive out timidity. When Yankee Energy System Inc., a diversified energy-solution provider based in Meriden, Connecticut, was hit with industry deregulation in ’96, we knew remaining competitive meant drastically decreasing the cost of running the company. To do that, the company would have to undergo a complete business transformation.
Like many other companies facing this realization, we (Ellen J. Quinn, vice president of administration responsible for HR and Sharron Emmons, manager of HR) set up a reengineering team, comprising a cross section of HR professionals, engineers, customer-service people and training professionals. Big changes were at hand.
But there was a problem. Those big changes actually weren’t at hand—not with the group chosen for reengineering. Employees had been steeped in a utility industry culture that promotes stability and consensus. That culture made the group almost emotionally incapable of recommending radical change. In addition, what momentum the group had was lost over time. The combination led to recommendations that were overly general and failed to focus on the action required to achieve a result. Vague ideas like improving service levels, enhancing training programs or decreasing cycle times all abounded—without any specified measures attached.
Three months into the reengineering, the group was getting ready to focus on HR—and it was fundamentally tired. The HR change goals, however, were not for the faint of heart: to eliminate low-value processes, to invent people practices that would contribute to Yankee’s strategic plan and to change HR from a reactive enforcer to a proactive partner. Unfortunately, the group’s suggestions were all modest rather than grand and safe rather than gutsy. The effort stalled; the group was languishing.
Quinn, the group’s leader, sensed the need to re-ignite the process. She decided to shake things up, to bring in a small band of mavericks—the “Outlaws.” The seven Outlaws would come from various functions throughout the company and have reputations for being forthcoming with their opinions.
How do you pick an Outlaw? An Outlaw is a corporate James Dean, someone who’s an agent for change, someone who’s outspoken and somewhat irreverent when it comes to organizational institutions. But most of all, an Outlaw is an intelligent, knowledgeable employee who has risen to a level within the organization that enables him or her to see both upward and downward. Outlaws can and do articulate organizational shortcomings—they can be managerial nightmares.
We identified Outlaws by asking the reengineering teams questions such as, “If you want a really different approach, whom do you ask?” and “If you want an aggressive point of view or if you want to hear the straight story, whom do you talk to?” Once a list was developed, Quinn approached the individuals. They all loved the idea: They were people who had visionary perspectives but, because of their intense and frank natures, were disassociated and under-challenged. This was an opportunity for them to be valued and heard.
Showdown at the “Quinn Coral.”
Quinn’s home was the site of the daylong Outlaw “shootout.” While the Outlaws were in their element, the reengineering team was apprehensive. We tried to inject some levity by offering food and drink, and issuing cowboy hats, red neckerchiefs and toy guns. Each Outlaw was given a name that characterized the expected contribution—there was “Dead Wood,” the company’s manager of finance; “Move ’em Out,” the facilities manager; and “Get the Cash,” the credit and collections manager. Quinn, the group’s patron, even had a handle—she was affectionately called “Ma Barker.”
The two teams, the HR reengineering team and the Outlaws, met face-to-face on a sunny winter afternoon. The Outlaws immediately rose to the task, attacking the reengineering team’s lack of imagination and challenging every existing HR process and procedure. They aimed their toy guns and fired away, killing off the old ways of doing things and redefining the very culture of Yankee Energy. The freedom of the Outlaws was promoted by the very nature of their mission: They weren’t there to solve problems, they were there to identify problems and throw out alternative ways of doing things. The conversation grew uncomfortable at times as the Outlaws challenged the reengineering team’s lackluster results to that point. Recommendations came furiously as voices were raised and tempers began to rise. But by the end of the afternoon, there were flip-chart pages full of fresh ideas and recommendations and a new sense of direction and momentum. And the very act of watching these “trouble employees” in action—yelling at each other, tossing out ideas that would never work, experimenting—was a lesson in creative brainstorming for the reengineering team, which weathered the day well and picked up on the enthusiasm.
What the Outlaws helped to shape was a transformation of the HR process at Yankee Energy from reactive enforcer to proactive partner and consultant. Not afraid to question organizational institutions, the Outlaws demanded that the very leadership be examined and replaced if necessary. It was a rousing, and sometimes nerve-wracking, day.
What Yankee looks like now.
We acted on many of the Outlaws’ points for improvement in HR. Employees with less than forward-thinking attitudes were outplaced: The HR staff size, in fact, dropped from 14 to seven, eliminating a director and two other positions, and relocating other employees within Yankee.
At the Outlaws’ suggestion, the entire training function—which they had declared totally useless—was eliminated, making HR the primary caretaker of a new just-in-time training.
HR outsourced no-value-added processes such as workers’ compensation claim processing and health-care and dependent-care spending-account administration. In response to the reengineering team’s goal of moving Yankee employees toward a more creative, innovative mindset, the Outlaws challenged Yankee leadership to set the example. They insisted that pay-for-performance was necessary for the company to be fully productive and competitive. To that end, managers defined performance measures for all business processes, and all employees now have some form of incentive pay. The performance-appraisal process is currently being redesigned to include measurement and development of core competencies.
The Outlaws also pointed out that change demands honesty. In response, the company has drastically improved employee communications. Executives visit the 10 Yankee sites regularly for “Coffee Talks,” and engage employees in lively, honest discussion. A full-time employee-communications coordinator has been brought on board to develop a more employee-friendly communications strategy.
The Outlaws themselves grew from the experience also. They appreciated the validation they received by having their ideas taken seriously. Murry Staples, manager of credit and collections, summed up the attitude: “People like to bet against me, that I will fail, and I love proving them wrong. Being one of the Outlaws meant that different thinkers like us might actually be heard for a change. ... Being an Outlaw allowed me to get to the table.”
That chance to be at the table positively affected the Outlaws in ways unplanned and unforeseen: They established a network with each other, engaging in peer coaching and counseling. They began to understand the big picture of the organization better and their place within it. They began to trust their superiors more and to better work to solve issues and problems. And they began to see themselves—and have others see them—as experienced individuals who could fit into leadership roles in the organization and make things happen.
The Outlaws continue to have a positive influence on Yankee Energy. One Outlaw has moved from facilities management to planning and budgets, where he has spearheaded implementation of corporate performance measures that are reducing expenditures. Another Outlaw moved from information technology to HR. Using her technical knowledge, she has revamped the training function to take advantage of computer-based training technologies, reducing costs while making training available to many more employees—and tailoring just-in-time training curricula.
If you think an Outlaw showdown might be good for your company, keep this in mind: Management of Outlaws is not for the faint of heart. They break all the rules of brainstorming and polite interpersonal communications, often offend others, and require a strong senior management figurehead to at least nominally lead them, because they cannot and should not be controlled. But the positive changes such a talented and energetic group can create are worth the trouble.
By harnessing unconventional and potentially disenfranchised segments of the employee community, an organization can reap gains of strategic, economic and emotional impact for the employees and the organization as a whole. Round up your Outlaws, empower them, and stand back.
Workforce, April 1998, Vol. 77, No. 4, pp. 101-104