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How to transform established organizations the FBI way

Organizations in flux might do well to take a few lessons from a government bureaucracy deeply rooted in its own storied history: the FBI.

A new study co-authored by Tiona Zuzul, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, delves deeply into the successful transformation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from a law enforcement agency to an intelligence organization in the years following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Analyzing congressional testimony and interviews with then-Director Robert Mueller and scores of FBI officials, Zuzul and her colleagues determined that the Bureau’s transformation required a fundamental shift in focus from what it does to how it does it.

“Most organizations define themselves based on an outcome they are trying to achieve, or what they produce,” she says. “But very few organizations define themselves based on the process that they’re deploying, which is agnostic to the outcomes they’re trying to achieve.”

Transforming an institution

Photo of Tiona Zuzul

Tiona Zuzul

The FBI is an institution defined by its hard-earned identity as the nation’s top cop—and its resistance to change.

But change was required after 9/11, when President George W. Bush tasked newly appointed Director Mueller to transform the organization from one that solves crimes to one that prevents them. In other words, it needed to expand from enforcement to intelligence.

This meant massive reorganization. New divisions and structures. More analysts and fewer agents. A paradigm shift that would require buy-in from internal and external stakeholders alike.

Process before outcome

Mueller was ultimately successful. But how? Zuzul and her research colleagues—Ryan Raffaelli, Ranjay Gulati and Jan Rivkin of Harvard Business School—devised a painstaking method to find out.

The team analyzed congressional testimony and conducted 138 interviews with FBI officials to gather insights on the transformation. A clear pattern emerged. Transformation required a wholesale reframing of the way the Bureau views itself—which eventually shifted the way it is viewed by everyone else, too.

“The only way to justify that scale of change was to fundamentally change the way that the FBI was framed,” Zuzul explains. “And by framing, I mean how Mueller and stakeholders saw and made sense of the FBI’s purpose as an organization.”

Critically, the FBI shifted from outcome framing (focusing on what it does) to process framing (focusing on how it undertakes its work). This new process could support its more complicated dual mission of law enforcement and prevention from attack.

“Mueller spent 12 years not just trying out a series of internal changes,” Zuzul says, “but also trying to figure out how to frame these changes in a way that made sense and resonated with both internal and external stakeholders.”

Blueprint for big change

Zuzul believes this improbable case of organizational change offers insights to any venture in need of more than an incremental evolution.

“The FBI experience suggests that, when organizations face crises that require dramatic change, it is helpful to first clarify what outcomes the organization prioritizes, and then focus on how the organization will deliver those outcomes,” she says. “Framing the organization by emphasizing a shared process can make profound change a bit easier to pull off.”

Transforming the Federal Bureau of Investigation: Outcome and Process Framing in the Context of a Strategic Change Initiative” is the work of Ryan Raffaelli, Tiona Zuzul, Ranjay Gulati and Jan Rivkin.

An exemplar of qualitative research in a field awash in data, the paper received the inaugural Research Methods Paper Prize from the Strategic Management Society earlier this year.