Reinvent MOR Associates 1993-2002 or Risk Becoming Obsolete

By: Brian McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, Founder of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at or via LinkedIn.]
As the external trends were evolving, MOR needed to adapt to the changing context. Getting the union back together with management after a long and contentious strike was symbolic of the changing tenor of the times.
MOR was serving as a third party after an 18-week strike between the IBEW workers and the management of the Northeast Utilities. It was clear broad interest in improving labor management relationships was waning for both management and union leaders.

Teamwork, employee involvement programs and total quality management efforts had become mainstream initiatives being supported by internal human resources and training units. It was time to reinvent MOR Associates or run the risk we would be waning as well.
During this period from 1993-2002 MOR was increasingly coming to terms with a critical assessment that most training programs were not achieving the desired changes in behavior. For a firm delivering training as one of our major products this was a threatening realization and a dramatic moment when we needed to face this truth.
As shared earlier this month, the three-day Participative Management Programs with 3,700 Postal Services managers failed to change long standing behaviors from autocratic to more consultative. Likewise, other one day and three day training sessions also seemed to come up short. This provided the next lesson in MOR’s journey as we came to understand culture eats strategy for breakfast.
These insights coincided with a time when MOR was asked to design and implement self-directed work teams (SDWT) in numerous workplaces across the country.
MOR was offered 40 hours to train these potential self-directed work groups. We knew having people who were used to working on the manufacturing floor in a classroom for 4 to 8 hours was a non-starter. MOR made it quite clear this time, traditional training was not the path to creating sustainable changes in behaviors.
Instead of delivering workshops, MOR asked for the 40 hours to be parsed out in two-hour weekly “action learning sessions.” These modules were held on the factory floor or the huddle room when we were working with the engineers. These sessions were to span over three months for a total of 24 hours.
In each two-hour block MOR facilitators would introduce a new practice to the SDWTs. The newly formed teams would then run through the practice for the second hour giving each other real time feedback. Week one was how to run the 15-minute daily huddle. Week two was getting down a simple agenda. The first objective in each huddle was to review yesterday’s output and the second was to preview what needed to be done today.
Week three was a mini-facilitation session on how to get people engaged in the huddle. Week four introduced the “scoreboard” where teams would post their daily production, quality numbers and workhours.

These action learning sessions were taking hold and within two months teams were already self-managing. They were handling the workflow, rotating facilitation, posting to the scoreboard, adjusting work hours, figuring out how to cover other team members when needed and taking care of business. This provided tangible evidence that by redesigning the way MOR developed skills we could bring about sustainable changes in people’s behaviors.

As these SDWTs matured, the climate on the floor changed for the better. You could see how the collective adoption of the shared language and common practices was influencing the culture for the better. The people doing the work were empowered to make decisions, had the autonomy to run their operation and were accountable for tracking and adjusting how they did the work to meet their goals.
This innovation on the workroom floor provided the next insight for MOR.
Practices are the bridge between our aspirations and achieving the desired change. The action learning sessions introduced the practices that became the building blocks for work redesign. Similar practices are used in many “agile programs” operating today.
This period was instructive as MOR realized our role was to facilitate learning and the adoption of practices whether it was for the work team or the Manager as Coach. We were no longer “teaching” or delivering traditional training. Our role had transitioned to providing the concepts and frameworks and tools and then facilitating their application.
In the Manager as Coach participants spent 75% of their time practicing coaching in a series of progressive exercises. By the fourth or fifth application, they got it, they were asking open ended questions, listening, and letting the person they were coaching come to their own conclusions. People were learning by doing.
As we came to this realization that we didn’t need to be teaching per se, we also came to realize we didn’t need to be the experts. It was quite clear with the people during the action learning modules as issues came up: the answer was in the room.
This was also a time when it became increasingly apparent for MOR to work at the enterprise level it was incumbent on MOR to figure out how to develop leaders who had the mindset and skillset needed to be successful in an ever-evolving world. Transforming the way work was being designed needed to be supported and encouraged by those at the top.
How to do this and how to get clients to see the benefits became the quest for the next chapter in MOR’s evolution.
Lessons learned over these first twenty-five years have shaped MOR’s philosophy and approach to adult learning and the design of the MOR Leaders Programs offered today.

  • Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
  • Practices can lead to sustainable changes in behavior.
  • Sustainable changes in behavior can be a catalyst for the culture to evolve.
  • The answer is in the room.

This builds upon part one of the MOR story published earlier this month.  here are insights noted from that chapter, MOR Associates Turns 40, covering the time span from 1983 to 1992:

  • Relationships matter more then we realize.
  • A three-day workshop does not result in sustainable behavior change.
  • A three-day workshop does not change a deeply embedded autocratic culture that made top-down management a science.
  • Any workshop where people are mandated to attend is far less likely to influence behavior than when participants want to be there.
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