In the 1840’s Martin Murphy left Ireland with his wife and children, headed to New Brunswick to start a new life on the New World. It must have been a horrifying journey. When the ship arrived ashore, only Martin and his son James had survived. I image that it was through classic Murphy traits of extraordinary stamina and scrappy intelligence they carved out a new life from scratch. James became a lumberman, he married and launched a family line of Murphys in North America. That was seven generations ago. When my youngest son, Martin James, asks about his name, that’s the story he hears. He, like his siblings, carries with him the legacy from generations past. Part conscious, part unconscious the stories of our past shape our self-identity and image of who we are in the context of time and relationships. And yet, at every new generation is the opportunity to transcend the experiences of the past and create new images and stories of our times.
Three years ago one mental health center was ready to start telling a new story about itself. In the midst of drastic healthcare reform, including new Medicare funding regulations, expanded health and mental health insurance access and new models of service delivery through technology platforms, this organization understood that it had to fundamentally change the way it operates so that it could be effective and sustainable in a future of an increasingly dynamic environment. The organization had to change the way it imagined itself.
For years, the employees operated with the image of themselves and the organization as an agency accountable for the care of the most vulnerable persons in the community but strapped by the requirements of its public funders and restrained in its ability to provide needed programs and services. This self-image influenced the actions of employees. They often felt hamstrung in their ability to address ongoing organizational problems. They could not resolve process breakdowns between departments that often resulted with atypical clients falling between the cracks. Obstacles, both real and imagined, constrained employees’ performance and service quality. The collective self-image that governed employee behavior was of a compliant, efficient organization that existed to fulfill its obligations to its funders.
This self-image started to be detrimental and the CEO knew it. In a radically changing healthcare environment, this self-image no longer served the organization. To persist in the old way would result in a withering organization and its consumers to go unserved. Over the past three years, the staff and management have been on a journey toward creating a sustainably effective organization—one that provides ongoing benefit to clients and their families, as well as to employees and the environment. This change has been more than a series of new programs and projects. It’s been a journey in shifting employees’ mindset about the organization they work for and of themselves.
The new collective image held by the employees about themselves and their organization as responsive, engaged, and sustainable has taken time to develop. Over the last three years, employees have been engaged in a process of shaping the vision, values, and operating principles that guide the direction of the journey. As successful projects were achieved, the stories employees tell of themselves have started to change. These new images foster more sustainable and agile actions and behaviors. So while the organization still holds to important values including dignity, respect and caring. It has been able to expand its self-image to also include the values of responsiveness, empowerment, and impact on the community. In this way, a new generation of employees can connect the past with relevancy for the present day.