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April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

Capturing an Organization's Oral History

Telling stories about the past can help schools understand where they have been and chart where they are going.

Let the past be a guidepost, not a hitching post.—Participant in a Historygram process
A newly hired superintendent enthusiastically introduces school faculty to a model of shared decision making that he had previously implemented in a district. "I'm excited to begin working more collaboratively with parents and the community in making decisions about our schools," he says, "and I'm hoping I can count on each of you for a strong commitment to this model. Are there any questions?" After a tense silence, the superintendent presents specific steps for implementing the model. Over the next months, he feels as if he's the only one truly committed to the initiative; faculty and staff involvement is sporadic or non-existent.
In this scenario, "steady state," as Patrick Dolan (1994) calls it, is alive and well—people want the future to be a familiar and predictable continuation of the past. Why do we adhere to the steady state? Educators have seen innovations come and go. They've grown accustomed to "hunkering down" and "waiting it out." Like observers at a parade, they stand and comment to one another or simply watch as the parade passes by with this year's banner at the lead. Sometimes they might even erect a blockade, forcing the parade to stop, go around, or at least slow down. Each time this happens, they create a little more resistance to change. This resistance can be overcome by stirring historical memory through the Historygram process.

Historical Memory

Organizations, like families, have historical memory, and historical memory is part of an organization's culture. This culture is solidified through "tribal lore" as members of each subgroup tell new members stories about life in the workplace (Neuhauser, 1988). These stories may detail times when the leaders didn't listen and times when people felt discounted, ignored, or embattled. They also describe initiatives that people felt proud to be part of, times when the organization valued things that people held near to their hearts, and ways that people are coping today.
The stories acquire more power and persuasion each time an initiative is imposed without attention to how people feel and think about it. Assumptions about others' motives and intentions, shaped by oral history, can act as roadblocks to even the most positive initiatives. Added to this is the lack of reflection time in most organizations, such as schools, for employees to talk together about their perspectives and assumptions.
M. Scott Peck (1987) believes that people yearn for community. "A real community," he says, "is, by definition, immune to mob psychology because of its encouragement of individuality, its inclusion of a variety of points of view" (p. 64). Real communities solve problems creatively. They work together for what is best for the whole, fight fairly, and share information openly and honestly. However, to become a real community, we must first pass through the stages of pseudocommunity, chaos, and emptying. In pseudo-community, we are overly polite and cautious with one another. We are factionalized and at odds in the chaos stage. In emptying, we open up and listen honestly to one another (Peck, 1987).
Education leaders need to allow people to empty their hurts from, and fears and concerns about, past change initiatives. When introducing a change initiative, we rarely honor the organization's tribal elders (who have been around longer than anyone else) by allowing them to talk about past parades that they have been part of or have led. We need to take the time to reflect together to understand the patterns, cycles, and trends of our collective organizational history.

The Historygram Process

The Historygram process draws on the work of physicist and philosopher David Bohm, who introduced the concept of dialogue in which we can all suspend carrying out our impulses, suspend our assumptions and look at them—[then] the whole structure of defensiveness and opinions and divisions can collapse. (Bohm, 1992, p. 18)
Over the past three years, school districts, state agencies, and private businesses have used the process to pause, take a collective breath, and reflect on where the organization has been and where it is going. Each time, the result has been a renewed sense of commitment to and energy for the initiative, a better understanding of how the initiative fits into the past, and the beginning of real community.
The Historygram provides a collective forum for groups of 15 to 100 people to review an organization's past. How the Historygram is used depends on the needs of the group, such as orienting new members, reevaluating the group's purpose, creating a shared vision for the future, and helping members build commitment for a present initiative.
The process is straightforward. My colleagues and I tape a long piece of shelf paper to one wall and draw a time line from one end of the paper to the other, ending with an arrow and a cloud marked "future." After introducing the group to Neuhauser's tribal theory, we ask who has been with the organization the longest and when that person was hired. Accompanied by some good-natured ribbing about his or her status as a tribal elder, the person stands at the front of the room. As the year he or she started is recorded on a flip chart, the person tells one anecdote about what the organization was like back then.
We then list succeeding dates, inviting people to come to the front and form a line around the room's perimeter. Each person offers an anecdote about the organization. When a number of people joined the organization in the same year, we have them stand one behind another, with the most senior person at the front of the line. For years when no one was hired (an interesting part of organizational history in itself), we make spaces between the lines. In this way, a human histogram forms. As members line up, the years are recorded on the flip chart. At the end, the years are grouped into "eras," according to the top leadership of each time.
  • What was the name of this era? (For example, "The Crisis Years.")
  • What was the culture like? What tribal stories circulated? What symbols and ceremonies were important?
  • What were the major initiatives?
  • What were the goals of each initiative?
  • How was the success of the initiatives measured? How did you know that you were making progress? What was the basis for shifting direction?
  • What values from the past do you want to bring into the future?
Volunteers from each group are invited to bring their answers to the time line and to tell the rest of the group the story about that era. As the stories unfold, we periodically ask participants to identify patterns, trends, and cycles. Sometimes deeply felt emotions surface, as members realize what they have lost in the process of growing as an organization. These "ahas" are healthy for the individual and the group and should emerge naturally.
We also look for underlying assumptions that people are making about why people behaved as they did, why changes were initiated, and what the goals were in each era. These questions inevitably lead to a rich conversation and a deep understanding about the organization's history, an important first step in examining how mental models have been formed and how they have shaped actions. The following case histories illustrate the success of the Historygram process.
  • A small school district recently hired a new superintendent. Staff members within the district had worked for many years to build a commitment for teamwork and data-based decision making. The new superintendent was also committed to these values and had some personal initiatives in mind as well. He listened for three hours as the stories and pictures (drawn on the time line) unfolded. As the last person hired in the district, the superintendent received a unique orientation to his new place of work. His response was, "I never knew you had so much in place for so many years. I'm in awe." The staff was noticeably pleased and encouraged.
  • A department in an education organization was going through an identity crisis, with two leaders subtly battling each other for control and direction. The 25-member group analyzed its history and discovered that a pattern of dual leadership philosophies had for many years had a negative impact on people. As the group identified staff assumptions and drew pictures about what they were saying, the two leaders realized that their goals and philosophies were more aligned than they had thought.
  • A large state agency was implementing a major change initiative aimed at reorganizing reporting relationships, increasing efficiencies, sharing resources, and developing community-business partnerships. The administrators passively resisted the changes, contending that they'd seen it all before. Staff members were confused and frustrated, calling the change the "initiative of the week." After an intense conversation that uncovered long-buried hard feelings, an administrator noted, "No wonder the staff is angry. We're not helping them see the connections between initiatives because we never saw the connections until now."

Honoring Our Stories

One reason the Historygram process works is that we are natural-born storytellers. Our own tribal elders once sat around campfires telling stories about the important events in the tribe's life. A part of us still yearns for that oral tradition. Another reason may be that storytelling provides an objective way to empty what has long been on our minds. Perhaps, too, visualizing an organization's history helps people better understand behavior in the context of organizational patterns, trends, and cycles.
  • What is on the road ahead? What implicit and explicit assumptions are we carrying forward?
  • What is the nature of the crossroads we face? What is at stake for each of us personally? Professionally? For the department, school, or district?
  • What measurable promises can we make to one another to better fulfill our purpose? What do we need to do as a group, team, or partnership to make sure that we have the necessary support systems in place?
  • What values from the past do we want to take with us into the future?
People don't resist change; they resist being changed. There are valid, deeply felt reasons for this resistance. If we take the time to allow people to discuss the past; to honor the roots of the organization and the hard work that people have put in; and to understand the patterns, trends, cycles, and assumptions made over the years, they will be better prepared to move forward and embrace the future.

Bohm, D. (1992). On dialogue. Noetic Sciences Review, 3, 16–18.

Dolan, W. P. (1994). Restructuring our schools: A primer on systemic change. Kansas City, MO: Systems & Organization.

Neuhauser, P. C. (1988). Tribal warfare in organizations. New York: Harper Business.

Peck, M. S. (1987). The different drum: Community making and peace. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Jan O'Neill began her career teaching elementary and middle school students and has diverse experience in early childhood education, special education, multicultural education, and the Montessori method. As an independent consultant, she pioneered the systemwide application of quality principles in municipal and state governments and in healthcare. Jan has developed and implemented numerous training and improvement efforts for public and private sector clients. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Education from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and a Master's degree in Public Policy and Administration from LaFollette Institute, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Jan is an adjunct faculty member for Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee.

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