Only a handful of corporations have ever set out to deliberately transform themselves as a whole -- to change from top to bottom their ways of conducting business, their attitudes, and their organizational structure. It is particularly audacious to take on such a transformation just after a time of layoffs and cutbacks, when most managers instinctively want to hunker down and wait for better times to return.
Yet the senior leaders of OilCo, an American oil company, embarked on just that sort of comprehensive change initiative in 1993, soon after the worst round of layoffs in their history. During the next three years, the "OilCo transformation," as they called it, profoundly altered every aspect of the company. OilCo's business practices, corporate governance structure, team management approaches, leadership style, and values came into question. Many policies and structures were abruptly altered. A host of assumptions and attitudes, long ingrained in OilCo's culture, no longer seemed to fit as well as they once did, and these too were brought up for reexamination and renewal. The act of change itself, once the exclusive purview of the senior-most executives, was propelled and cascaded to many far-flung parts of this large corporation.
Between 1993 and 1997, OilCo actually did most of the things that large companies are exhorted to do by management "gurus," by leadership books, and by the Harvard Business Review. But OilCo didn't just follow a set of management fads blindly. Its leaders, and people throughout the company, thought in depth about the changes they adopted and crafted them into a relatively coherent program. Few companies have gone so far, and rare indeed is the opportunity to look behind the corporate curtain to see what happened from within.