This material originally appeared in Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations, which was published by Abbott Publishing in 1987.
The beginning of the story, at least so far as I was concerned, occurred on a beautiful fall evening (1980) as I stood on an apartment balcony overlooking the water dividing Norfolk and Portsmouth. The water way was filled with ships, everything from small harbor tugs to large naval vessels with a sprinkling of passenger liners and cargo ships. Across the way, the reflected lights of Portsmouth sparkled in the water, and to my left, I could see the enormous hulk of the United States, which had just been hauled out of the water in the largest floating dry dock in the world. One thousand feet long and almost 20 stories tall from the bottom of her keel to the top of her stacks, she stood like an instant sky scraper bathed in the strange orange radiance of sodium vapor lights while little men scraped her hull and applied new paint. Further to my left, I could clearly see the new buildings which made up downtown Norfolk. I can remember thinking to myself, “My God, what a fantastic place.” It was vibrant and alive 24 hours a day with the coming and going of the ships of the world. Yet for all its business, it maintained an intimacy and human scale which is simply lost in harbors like New York. And all around, from virtually any point of view, there was water.
The only jarring note came from the headlines of daily paper I had just finished reading, which described in lurid detail the raging “Water Wars” which had begun the previous summer. It seems that the region was suffering a drought, and available fresh water in the city of Norfolk and elsewhere was approaching a critical shortage. Rationing had been instituted to the point of curtailing lawn watering and other non-essential uses, and unless the rain fell or other sources of supply were to be found, the situation would move from being inconvenient to downright serious. Actually, there was no immediate lack of water in the region, only certain parts of it, and the Water Wars chronicled in the paper resulted from the inability of the neighboring cities to share a resource that some of them were literally swimming in. It was but another chapter of the continuing saga of municipal jealousies which had been playing out for the better part of 300 years.
Water, both salt a fresh, was equally the bane and blessing of the region. It connected everything and divided everything. The local cities stood in close physical proximity, and their future development depended upon their capacity to share and work together. Yet between the cities (or at least most of them) stood the water of Hampton Roads and its tributaries, separating them like the moats of medieval castles. Were it possible to convert this powerful symbol-reality from “boundary” to “opportunity,” from “separation” to “connection” the unity of the region might be effected. This conversion did not need to be physical, but perceptual, for the cities were linked by a reasonably adequate system of bridges and tunnels. Yet perceptually, the distance between cities might be measured in light years. Everything was “across the water,” the “other side of the Roads” — as if the harbor were some impenetrable barrier. Changing that perception would involve creating a New Story, a new mythic structure in which water was the means of union. Given such a new story built upon the open space of the harbor, it was at least thinkable that the spirit of the region might be assisted in transforming from petty pockets of isolation and jealousy into something approaching connection and wholeness.
That was the idea, and it obviously connected in meaningful ways with my concerns for Eastern Virginia Medical Authority. To the extent that the spirit of regionalism was strengthened, EVMA’s future might be secured. And by the same token, were it possible to develop regional organization to both support and reflect the telling of the “New Story,” that organization could become the “alternate place to stand” for Dr. Mayer. Before going on to describe how this strategy evolved, it would probably be useful to back up a little and provide some further details on the history of the area.
The region as defined at the time of the meeting (1985), begins in the north with the city of Williamsburg and proceeds south to the North Carolina border, a distance of about 60 miles. It is bounded on the east by the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and consists of nine cities and four counties (including Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Williamsburg, Virginia Beach, Hampton, Chesapeake, Suffolk, and Poquoson), all contiguous with each other and/or bordering on the Hampton Roads. At the present time, it is home for 1,208,400 people with an effective annual buying income of $10.5 billion. In aggregate, the region ranks in the top 50 market areas in the United States, although because of local divisions it had not been displayed that way. This has now changed, which is part of the story, but in the old days, the largest market area to appear on the charts ranked 143.
European settlers appeared in 1607 (Jamestown), and the older cities of the region date from that period (Norfolk, 1683). In short, there is a long history, much of which is critical to the history of the whole country. In 1776, George Mason’s Declaration of Rights, written in Williamsburg, lay the ground work for the Bill of Rights which appears in the Constitution. And of course it was in this same region that the Revolutionary War ended with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781.
World War II brought enormous activity to the area, for the Harbor was the home of a major naval installation in Norfolk and, across the water in Newport, the Newport Ship Building and Dry Dock turned out vessel after vessel. At the end of the war — there was an attempt to return to the somnolent days of a sleepy southern community, but unfortunately for that effort, the new people who had been attracted during the war days did not go home. The Navy continued to be a major presence, although relationships there may best be described by the signs that appeared in many yards saying “Sailors and Dogs Keep Off the Grass.” On the positive side, the region was blessed with some of the finest natural living conditions on the East Coast.
It would not be stretching a point to say that for most of that time relations between the several cities ranged from nonexistent to conflicted. Rarely, if ever, was there any degree of mutual cooperation and support. For much of the history, the quality of these relationships made little difference, for the cities could afford to exist largely by themselves. In fact the presence of inter-municipal conflict was actually used to advantage by the various political establishments who argued to their respective constituencies that “such and such action” ought to be taken lest X city get the better of us.
In the 1960s, relationships became especially strained, particularly as concerned the city of Norfolk. Norfolk had always been the commercial center, and as it grew, it began to extend out into the surrounding farmlands (what is now Virginia Beach). According to Virginia law, a city may annex county territory, but the reverse is not true. As the cities’ need for space grew, it was feared that “urban problems” would soon spill over the countryside. That provided the impetus, and overnight (literally) the cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake were created. The lines had been set, not only by history, but now by law.
Beginning in the late ’50s, the private sector leadership in Norfolk began what eventually became a major renaissance though which the downtown portion of the city was literally redone. As that effort progressed, it became clear to these leaders just how enormous the potential of the areas really was and simultaneously, how far they were from realizing that potential. What stood in the way were the age old conflicts which in another day might have been considered amusing or even useful. That was no longer the case, for the constant act of positive non-cooperation drained energy that could well be used in another way.
Thereupon began some efforts towards regional cooperation. It was assumed that everything could not be done at once; the considered approach dictated a “one piece at a time” strategy. Thus, it was suggested that the area develop shared police service (or fire, water, and so forth). It quickly became apparent, however, that the police chiefs (or fire chiefs) were just as infected with the old parochialism as everybody else, and these efforts towards cooperation ended in failure. Indeed, the failure of regional cooperation had become such a repetitive pattern that few believed it could ever be broken, and many doubted that it was even worthwhile trying. The single exception to this bleak pattern had been the creation of EVMA. That was the situation as I stood on the balcony that night. I wrote at the time;
“. . . it appears that Tidewater is approaching or has arrived at a very interesting point. There is the obvious potential for the creation of a truly elegant human community of wealth, diversity, sophistication and position. Such a creation would represent the culmination of the vision and effort of a dedicated leadership and an energetic population. To sacrifice such potential, particularly when it is so close to realization, would represent major loss.” (Dreams and Leadership in Tidewater – Some thoughts, unpublished)
I went on to suggest that whereas previous efforts to enhance regionalization had been based on a step by step approach in which attempts had been made to link various service elements of the region, all of which had failed, perhaps it was now time to try something different. I proposed that the solution might lie in creating a sufficiently large vision to include all components within the region that no one would feel constrained for turf. In short, do away with the turf battles by simply imagining an arena with room for all.
The dream I suggested was to develop the Tidewater area as “a major place from which the exploitation of the oceans may take place.”(1) Conceiving and elaborating such a dream could not happen just by saying the words. It would involve a lot of hard work, and a heavy dose of “future think” — which might sound a little bit like 2001 and Jules Verne, but the capacity to dream an un-imagined future provides precisely the material from which the future is made. Obviously, not all futuristic dreams come true (nor should they) but it is a fact in the human sphere that little if anything comes to pass which was not first dreamed. The lines from “South Pacific” are to the point: “You got to have a dream or how you going to have a dream come true?”
In practical terms, I suggested that the regional leadership might look to the seas as their point of union and basis for their future development. Given this perspective, the appropriate questions would be: What opportunities do the oceans hold for us? What present regional resources do we have that could give us a solid base for starting? And, What else do we need to develop in order to realize those opportunities? To get from “here to there,” I acknowledged the normal practice of employing an external consulting group but recommended against it, in part because I was not sure that such a group existed, but mostly because it was inconceivable that they could dream Tidewater’s dream. Dreaming after all is something you do for yourself. To give the whole enterprise a frame and an end-point, I suggested that these questions be dealt with preparatory to, and then in the context of, a major, international Symposium of the Seas.
The paper outlined a strategy which I thought might work for the whole region, while simultaneously meeting the needs of my erstwhile client, EVMA. I therefore took the paper to William Mayer with the suggestion that if he agreed, I might “float it about” in a limited way to see what the response might be. He concurred, and we chose a small group of six all of whom connected with the central power structure of the region, but were not the obvious leaders.
When seeding a story, it is well to place it in more than three and less than seven places at the edges of power. The reason for more than three is that the story cannot appear as the product (baby) of only one or two, because it is then too easy to stop. By the same token, the places of “seeding” should be limited (less than seven) or the whole thing loses its subtlety and it capacity as an Open Space to allow those further down the chain to buy in. Positioning it at the edge of power is critical, for it must be close enough to the center of things in order to be credible (if retold), and yet not right at the center of things at which point it may appear too heavy handed. The objective is basically to stimulate the mythos field in a limited number of places, and then, if that stimulation meets with a resonant response, allow the field itself to do the work. In short, no press releases early on.
The initial response was positive, but cautious. Positive in the sense that those who read the paper clearly resonated to the central theme both in terms of the need for unity and the idea of the sea providing the basis. Their caution, however, was obvious and came from many years experience in the region. The reaction might best be summed up in the words of Perry Morgan, the executive editor of the Virginia Pilot and Ledger Star, who said: “My question, Harrison, is whether you could or should do something to harden to some degree a beautifully proportioned but highly theoretical proposition.”
Perry Morgan had placed his finger right at the nub of the central tactical question. The story had to be sufficiently open (vague) to allow for the imagination of others to move in and make it their own. But there must be sufficient specificity and detail to give it texture and structure, that is to say, make it credible. Morgan obviously felt that I should harden the case, and given where he was coming from, and indeed where most of the others came from, that was a very legitimate point. For the people who were hearing this story, and those who would have to join in later of if anything were going to happen, viewed themselves as “hard, realistic, businessmen” as indeed they were. While they might admit that previous efforts toward regionalism had failed, and acknowledge that there was some real virtue in having a dream and sharing a vision, they were quickly moved to the level of nuts and bolts, dollars and cents, hard plans. My sense, however, told me that the story, as presented, was good for openers, and that any more detail would slow the process of assimilation. The real danger was that the story become perfect, and perfectly mine. It would never become theirs.
It is worthwhile noting that the decision regarding detail versus openness made at that time had constantly to be remade and readjusted through out the whole project. Ultimately, if the regional spirit were ever going to cohere, the individuals involved had to experience a large degree of vagueness, which might positively become the space they needed in order to create a form for their collective spirit that went beyond its present parochial forms. But it could never be forgotten that Open Space is, by definition, without the old familiar limits, and therefore it may become downright frightening. Fear, of course, leads to withdrawal, and that can be the end of it all. Under ideal circumstances, the hardness, details, and specificity should come as the product of the collective endeavor, but it remains true that some structure must be provided. There are no clear-cut rules here, though in practice I find it useful to give just as little structure as possible and always less than many might find desirable.
The story was out in paper and verbal form, and after the turn of the year (1981) a series of meetings occurred which involved a progressively larger and larger segment of the leadership of the region. Bill Mayer undoubtedly instigated some or all of them, but never did he appear in the central leadership role. That was left to those to whom the tradition of the area had accorded that status. For a period of several months, it appeared that the project would take flight, and indeed the discussions of the meetings were quickly getting down to the details — who, where, when, and how.
In the spring, a meeting was called to take place in Portsmouth with carefully selected attendees representative of the region as a whole. Going into that meeting, I thought that this would be the point of lift off, and indeed the discussion was positive, intense and enthusiastic. The meeting was chaired by Frank Batten, the chairman of the board of Landmark Communications, and those present represented a virtual who’s who of the area, on all sides of the Hampton Roads.
Much of the discussion revolved around how to get an accurate tally of pertinent present resources in the region. It was clear to me that the group was beginning to come to grips with the enormity of the task that lay ahead, at the same time, I was more than a little concerned that they would get bogged down in the details and lose the larger picture. I tried to suggest as quietly as I could that determining pertinent resources depended in large part on having a clear sense of what they might be needed for, which meant that vision had to precede inventory. Or put quite simply, you had to know where you were going before you figured out how to get there.
As things turned out, my comments were appropriate, but my tactics were terrible. By raising the issue of vision, I had effectively taken the group out further than comfort would allow, and in response, they settled even more determinedly into how to create the necessary regional inventory, and who was going to do it. It was quickly determined that nobody in the room had the necessary time and expertise, and just as it appeared that everything would fall apart, Frank Batten indicated that he thought the “inventory” might be developed through the efforts of several of his investigative reporters. The feeling of relief was obvious, and the meeting adjourned.
My feelings were rather mixed. I was pleased that things hadn’t fallen apart, but I wasn’t entirely sure that they were really together. More to the point, I was concerned that should the reporters really do a job, they would create just one more report that would sit on people’s desks. Some mechanism was needed to bring a much larger segment of the regional leadership into the process, so that they not only unearthed facts but in the process began to experience the reality of regional cooperation. The story could not be built from facts alone, it had to become liturgy. Even though I could imagine such a mechanism, I hadn’t a clue as to how to make it acceptable to the assembled group. As “businessmen” they perceived they had a “problem” (to gather some facts), which they were addressing in what they took to be the most expeditious way — send some folks out after the facts, and then have them report back.
What needed saying, and what I couldn’t articulate, was that they didn’t have a “problem” nor were “facts” the issue. They had an opportunity which might only be addressed if they (and a whole mess more like them) became personally involved in visioning the outcome and assembling the resources. At that point, they would no longer need to talk about becoming unified, they would be one, or at least a lot closer to being one than the region had seen before. Instead of telling a story or talking about how to tell the story, they would be the Story.
The reporters (for whatever reason) were unable to develop the inventory to everybody’s satisfaction, but it took more than a year for all of this to become clear. In the interim, it seemed that things just “sat,” and in terms of any overt signs of progress, there were none. I would have concluded that the whole enterprise was dead except for some persistent conversations which occurred during that year whenever I came to the area. People who had never been part of any of the meetings or received any of the material so far as I knew, seemed to know an awful lot about what was going on — and were more than a little curious as to what would happen next. Most curious was the fact that they were “sure” that something was going to happen “next.”
In retrospect, I saw that the idea had by no means died, it was simply germinating. The truth of the matter was that we had gone too far out to the edges, and people just needed some time to catch up. One practical issue, which had never been really addressed was who was going to lead this venture should it really be undertaken. But the question of leadership was un-resolvable until there was a firm consensus that the whole thing was beyond the level of make believe and at least worthy of a damn good try.
Standing in the way of such a consensus was a larger issue which could not be dealt with directly, but just had to be “mulled.” This issue was simply that if, by some wildest stretch of the imagination, the whole scheme actually worked — things really would be different. While there had been a lot of conversation and verbal agreement relating to the need for that difference if the region was to progress, I believe there was a slowly dawning awareness that once over the divide, things would never be the same again. While much of what might happen could appear positive, most of what lay ahead was simply unknown. Just to take one, but very crucial area, should the region actually unite, it was quite clear that the forms and probably the personalities of leadership would inevitably change. For a Southern conservative community (indeed any community), such change is not be entered into lightly. With the wisdom of hindsight (but very little hard evidence), I am now convinced that the major impediment was not, as I had supposed, that people were afraid that the idea would NOT work — but rather that it might, and what then?
If my surmise was correct, then the only antidote was time. People had to be given the space to imagine what it might be like, come to terms with the fact that they couldn’t quite imagine it, and then reach the conclusion that given the alternatives (more of the same local bickering) and the opportunities (however they might appear), it was worth a try.
One major piece of learning from all this for me was the level of courage required. In a way, I had approached all this as an interesting problem or opportunity to utilize some “technology” in a very unique and complex environment. But the simple fact was, I could go home. It wasn’t my region. This distancing was certainly useful when it came to plotting strategy and tactics, but it also makes it easy to forget that real lives are involved, and that the stakes, no matter how things turn-out, are very high. Transformation, as I have come to understand, is never free from pain and anxiety, and for good reason, it is fearsome and most often hurts. Life, death and resurrection are not just words.
In the spring of 1982, things began to move. The observable impetus came from Frank Batten, who had come to the conclusion that the reporters were not going to be able to do the job, and since he still felt that the “job,” no matter how that might get defined needed to be done, he offered $15,000 for somebody to get on with the business. Mr. Batten’s gift was clearly a turning point, but it in itself was not sufficient to explain what happened next, for after waiting better than a year since the last meeting, the pace picked up remarkably. Why or how this should have occurred, I have never been quite sure, but clearly the time (in the sense of kairos) was right.
With cash on the barrelhead, the question was what to do next. I found myself concentrating on the details of a process, but others were much more concerned about who would lead. This was but one of several examples of how I, as an outsider, failed to pick up on some essential in the culture of Tidewater. It turns out that what you do is actually of less importance that who does it, and the most important thing is to have the proper person at the head.
In retrospect the leader of choice was startling obvious, but how the decision was made is instructive. The truth of the matter is that there were less than a dozen individuals in the whole region who might fall within the zone of consideration. Whoever was chosen had to be sufficiently well known that his name would command instant attention. In addition, this person must be sufficiently senior and successful so as to be above any questions as to motive. And lastly, this leader had to have the positive regard of most, if not all of the power points in the region. I say he, because there were no women in the acknowledged leadership ranks of the region.
The first thought was that Frank Batten himself should be that person, and in many ways he qualified superbly, but for a number reasons, including the fact that he had been recently ill and was extremely busy, this would not work. Thereupon began a process of consultation among the power elite of the area. This consultation never took the form of a single meeting, but occurred over lunch and on the phone. In essence, each of the members of the consultative group were considered with a degree of affectionate dispassion that I found amazing. I say “affectionate dispassion” because everybody knew and respected everybody else, and all had been involved in one way or another over a long period of time with a multitude of projects. But the question here was who was precisely the right person. No votes were ever taken, but eventually one name emerged, Henry Clay Hofheimer II. In the way of the region, a small delegation was assembled to pay a call on Henry Clay, as he is known by virtually everybody. For obvious reasons, I was not a part of the delegation, so precisely what happened, I cannot say, but the outcome was that he signed on.
Henry Clay was the perfect choice from all points of view. At 76, he was the very image of the vital patrician. It was said that nothing of major social benefit had taken place in recent history without the substantial input of this gentleman. He was a major figure in the creation and funding of EVMA, and his involvements went from the opera to the zoo. His office and home were in Norfolk, but he summered in Virginia Beach, and was well known and respected throughout the region.
Those were the practicalities, but symbolically the choice was perhaps even better, for Henry Clay epitomized the bridge between the old and the new. His conservative demeanor gave comfort to those who might think that the whole enterprise was just “too far out,” while his personal vision and love for the region drove him to consider the future, and in so doing, he freed others to do the same. Having told his own story over a lifetime, he possessed that inner security which accorded each participant the similar right and obligation. Most of all, he was committed. When I met him again after he had accepted the lead role he said, “This is the most important thing I have ever done.” I heard him repeat this phrase on a number of occasions, sometimes with an extra bite, as in, “This is the most important thing I’ve ever done, and don’t you people let me down.” Nobody did.
Having a leader, we could now get on with the business of developing the process. Although the money had theoretically been given to conduct the inventory of regional resources there were in fact no stringent restrictions on its use. I thought this might be the opportunity to get back to what I perceived to be the necessary way to go; namely, start with vision, and then proceed to the nuts and bolts of what was available and what needed to be created. Consequently, I proposed that we use the funds to put on what I euphemistically called a “training session” in which leadership from the region might come to better understand what was involved and how they might go about getting it done. I was convinced that when it came to the actual planning for the future, and the collection of information, the participants themselves had to do the work. The essential rationale came from the thought that the whole project was basically aimed at creating the environment within which regional cooperation might become a reality. From this point of view, planning for the future and collecting data was only the mechanism and excuse for getting everybody together while simultaneously providing a concrete experience of doing something significant regionwide.
In more specific terms, I suggested a three-phase “training program” which would deal with: 1) A Vision of the Future; 2) Probable concrete outcomes of that Vision (dollars and cents, jobs); and 3) Creation of a plan of action to pursue all of the above with commitment gained from the participants to do just that. I further recommended that there be few if any outside experts talking to the group, but rather that the bulk of the activity and conversation be conducted by those immediately involved.
When I presented this plan to a small working group that Henry Clay had assembled, I was surprised to find acceptance, considering the fact that the plan represented a 180-degree turn from what they had previously been talking about. This acceptance may have been due to my eloquence or to the fact that nobody had a better plan, but I think what really turned the tide was my insistence that the participants themselves had the necessary expertise to do the job, and for sure, they alone had the self-interest to see it through. Hence no external experts. If nothing else, this appealed to an inherent spirit of “can do individualism” which is characteristic of the region.
The training session was scheduled for the fall of 1982, on three separate days over a six-week period. The reason for this spacing was in part a practical consideration that given who we hoped might come, there was little likelihood such busy people would be free for three consecutive days, except possibly over a weekend; but considering the social life of the area, that too would be difficult. The major reason for the separation of the meetings, however, was to make it possible to hold each session in a different place in the region.
Before the sessions began, there were several other pieces of important business, not the least of which was the selection of the participants. It was agreed that who ever was invited must be well known in their own area, close to the center of power if not actually part of it, and open to new ideas. The actual guest list was put together by Henry Clay with infinite care and many conversations. All told there were 42, and taken as a group, they were quite literally those people who made the region run or who would clearly do that in the future. Each participant was personally invited by Henry Clay.
The second piece of business was to secure the involvement of a gentleman who was well known in the region, though he could not be counted as a member of the “old guard.” This was Harry Train, the four-star admiral who commanded the Atlantic Fleet, and was Supreme Allied NATO Commander. I had heard that he was about ready to retire, and furthermore that he had every intention of staying in the region. I knew that if we ever got the whole show on the road, we would absolutely need somebody to function as executive director. And what better choice than a four-star admiral especially if you were going to center your attention on the sea? Beyond the symbolic importance, which was real, Harry Train was perfect for the job, even though no job existed at the time I went to see him. He clearly had the “presence of command,” but of equal importance, he possessed a sense of self that could put almost anybody at ease. In addition, he was open for new adventures. It is not insignificant that upon his retirement from the Navy and before assuming his duties as the executive vice president of the organization we had yet to create, he took three months to walk the 2138 mile Appalachian Trail by himself.
The first session took place in October. The site took no little time to find, but it was perfect. We used a restaurant situated right on the edge of Hampton Roads which was all glass and facing the water. If I had ordered the day, I couldn’t have done better. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and you could see the enormous harbor from one end to the other. The ships of the world passed in review, and while we were concerned to vision the future of the region and the sea, the sea and its abundance lay at our feet.
We started slowly with coffee and conversation in order to give all the participants time to meet each other and become imbued with the environment. Although most of those who came had heard of each other, many of them had never met. No matter what else happened, the gathering itself was a “first” for the region.
During the morning, my intent was to set the stage, and to do so in a way that all would find comfortable and informative. The subject was Vision, having a vision, and the process of visioning. To do this, we had three presentations which were the first and last in the three day program. The first presentation was made by David Belle Isle, then involved with strategic planning at Martin Marietta. He told what he called the “Bill and Mary Story,” relating the then current takeover battle. His point was that Martin Marietta had no vision, which essentially set them up, and left them defenseless when confronting those who did. The next piece came from Colonel Frank Burns of the US Army, who related the story of Delta Force and how the Army used that mechanism to create a vision for itself. The last offering came from Judy Ellison who had been in charge of the Congressional Office of the Future and the Colorado state planning effort under Governor Lamb.(2)
The point of all this was not to specify how the region should move, but to make the whole idea of visioning the future a little less strange, and a little more possible. In the afternoon we got down to business. The format was an extended guided imagery. I must confess that I used this approach with trepidation, for the participants were by no means “New Age Folks.” However, I felt we needed an experience which was clearly different and departed from the norm sufficiently to create the necessary Open Space in which everybody could work together. Of course it also had to relate to the task at hand.
The actual process and images used were essentially those described in the previous chapter, beginning with “A Comfortable Place,” and including “Boundaries” and a “Journey to the Future.” While some of the older participants evidenced a degree of discomforture, I was absolutely amazed to see how willingly and deeply each person became involved, and even more remarkable, how openly they shared the content of their own exploration.
The first image (comfortable place) did little more than what it was intended to do, make people feel at ease with the process. But with the second one, things really began to work. When people shared their image of a “boundary” it became clear that some were quite frightened by the edges of things, while others felt mostly challenge. Most significant was the fact that they shared and really supported each other. In the long term, I think this particular exercise may have been one of the most important things we did, for it created a bonding experience that lasted throughout the sessions and into the main project that followed. Part of this, I think came from the fact that the language generated through the shared images constantly reappeared as the common, and to some extent secret language of the group.
The last image, “Journey to the Future,” was sort of the icing on the cake. The group clearly enjoyed the freedom of going beyond the immediate problems of the region to picture and share a vision of what it might become. There was no little bit of laughter, but also some very serious ideas expressed. The actual content was almost beside the point (although we recorded the basic ideas); the major thing was the presence of that indefinable sense of possibility. . . shared possibility.
That evening we dined on a sumptuous seafood dinner (what else) and allowed the day to marinate in some excellent wine and cocktails well served. By the time everybody went home, some 13 hours after the start, I felt certain that they could never go home again. For sure, not all the pieces were there, and everything was just “possibility” . . . but everything was clearly different.
The second session, which occurred some two weeks later, took place in the Board Room of the Newport News Ship Building and Dry Dock. Again the location was superb and very important. From the windows one could look out over the enormous yard filled with the rising hulls of newborn ships and into the harbor itself. Since the subject for the day was the practicality of vision — nuts and bolts, real live opportunities for growth from the sea — the back-drop of this massive industrial operation was appropriate and very stimulating. The actual format was quite standard and straight forward, utilizing a “brainstorming” process which took the participants, in small groups and large, from their vision of the preceding session to the practical opportunities. By the end of the day we had flip charts full — more ideas than most regions could use in a millennium. The significant part, however, was not the ideas themselves but the excitement which had been generated in their production. I knew that real investment had occurred when I overheard some of the participants in heated argument as to the best way to raise capital for a special project they had just created.
The last session took place at the new Marine Research Center at Hampton University. It was designed to create a workable mechanism where by the whole venture might be carried forward, and simultaneously secure the commitment of those involved to whatever might happen next. In introducing the session I said, “Given the Vision as you all have experienced it, and the practical opportunities that you have identified and invented, the question is now, How do you share all this and make it grow bigger and richer? How do you tell this emerging story to 1,200,000 people who share this region with you, so that it becomes not just your story but our story?” To get them started, we proposed a simple organizational design which could provide the means for bringing a large number of regional residents together over time, in what would appear to be a collective self-study, but in fact was an orchestrated re-presentation of the unity of Hampton Roads. We intentionally did not work out all the details of the design — doing just that was the business of the day.
To heighten the interest and build the dynamics, I intentionally appealed to the normal competitiveness of the area by dividing the group in two, and assigning each group the responsibility of considering the design and then either modifying it or coming up with something totally new which would accomplish the purpose. I asked Bill Mayer to chair one group and Admiral Train to take charge of the other. We allowed both groups to work for four hours, during which time they discussed, modified, invented and changed. At 2:00 we called everybody together, and each group presented their ideas to the other. The similarities of approach were obvious, but the differences were most useful, and it was apparent that each group was quite heavily invested in the way it had chosen to go. For several hours we negotiated and discussed, literally creating the design as we went. To aid in the process, I had invited Jim Channon, who has a marvelous ability to capture a group’s thinking in graphic terms on what he calls “monster-grams” (30 foot long piece of butcher paper stuck up on the wall). As the group talked, the picture of who they were, what they might become, and how they proposed to get there all emerged on the wall.
By 4:30 it was all done, except for one very important piece. Would they really do it, was the commitment there? At that point, I took a direct leadership role, even though Henry Clay was sitting right at the table, on the grounds that consultants are always disposable. I stated the obvious and posed the question. “Gentlemen, you have created what I take to be a very workable design. The question is, Will you commit yourself in terms of time and funds to making it work? We need the answer before we go adjourn, and cocktails will be served in half an hour.”
While it might seem that such a direct and bold statement was ill-advised, I confess to have borrowed the whole scenario from Porter Hardy (see the story of EVMA), and in any event it was clear to me that commitment time was at hand.
There followed a moment of silence which grew longer and longer. But no commitment. Next, some generally approving comments, but still no commitment. Silence returned, only to be broken by an animated discussion on what to call the organization. There were those who favored “Tidewater’s Future” (our working title) and another group that wanted “The Future of Hampton Roads.” “Tidewater’s Future” won by a show of hands, but as it turned out the name would later be changed to “The Future of Hampton Roads.” But still there was no commitment.
At five minutes to five, I pointed to the clock and said something to the effect that either you go for it or just chalk it up to experience. By five o’clock everybody was in.
What happened immediately after that was just wonderful. Henry Clay took charge. Before cocktails were served, it had been determined who would draft the articles of incorporation and see to the creation of a nonprofit foundation, and who would be on the board initially. Harry Train had been approached about the executive slot, and William Mayer was to become first vice president (providing that “alternative place to stand”). The Story had been told, and the group was the Story. It now remained to be seen how it would play out in the region. But things were different, for never in the history of the region had such a group existed, nor committed itself to so much.
Within a month “Tidewater’s Future” was legally constituted and the design agreed upon was being implemented. This design called for the creation of 10 (eventually 11) interest groups reflecting various sectors in the business and general community, such as transportation, finance, marine resources, health care and education. The definition of these groups was dictated by the current interests of the region and also those new areas where opportunity seemed to lie. Originally, these interest groups were called just that or sometimes “problem groups.” But I prevailed upon the nascent organization to adopt the name “Opportunity Groups,” just to remind everybody that we weren’t out to solve problems so much as seize opportunity. That may seem like a small thing, but I believe it had major impact as the project went along, particularly when it got into the inevitable sticky places.
It is noteworthy that no political entities were recognized in the creation of the Opportunity Groups (as indeed there had been no elected officials in the core group), and that was by design. It was felt that to achieve any kind of unity the existing political entities simply had to be “jumped over.”
Chairpersons were designated for the several Opportunity Groups with the charge to expand the group, paying careful attention not only to gaining the necessary expertise, but of equal importance insuring regional balance. The function of each group was to start with the sea: identify or invent the opportunities available to each area; consider all that in the light of available resources; and develop a better way to go.
Once formed, the groups met intensely for the better part of the year. On a substantive level the contribution of the several groups varied all over the place, but there was no mistaking the emerging power and interest that was generated. Each time any group met or all the chairpersons gathered, the story of regional cooperation was told in the most powerful way of all, by demonstration. Henry Clay and Harry Train led the charge. Appearing together, or separately, they crisscrossed the region, speaking on the subject of Hampton Roads wherever opportunity presented itself. More than their words was their presence, for collectively they came to symbolize the emerging regional spirit, providing “cover” for those who might think regionally, but for whatever reason, fear going public. When the patrician figure and the four star admiral took the lead, it began to look more possible, not to say respectable.
For Henry Clay, such activity was but a natural extension of what he had done most of his life. He knew everybody, and was well known by all. Most of all, he knew how to operate in the unspoken and publicly ill defined power world of the region.
Harry Train, in contrast, found himself in a strange new world. As Admiral Train, he had commanded hundreds of thousands of men, assisted by a large personal staff. Now, as Executive Vice President for the Future of Hampton Roads Inc., he was in a position to command nobody, and had a personal staff of one secretary. Shortly before he took office, he asked me in a quiet moment, “Harrison, what have we gotten ourselves into?” My answer was something like, “Admiral, you have just assumed responsibility for bringing cohesion to a group of people about the size of the United States Army, which has been operating for 300 years as totally autonomous units. You must do all this without a shred of line authority.” “Oh,” said the Admiral. And that is precisely what happened — with excellence. As things moved along, the press picked up the story, and through a series of editorials, special features and two extended TV productions, told the tale yet another time.
One year after the original meetings (fall 1983), a symposium was held in the city of Norfolk at which the several opportunity groups conducted workshops and shared what they had found with the community at large. After that, it was decided to bring in the political jurisdictions, and a series of “road shows” were organized in each of the several cities whereby the “findings” of the Opportunity Groups were again put on public display and public comment invited.
In the fall of 1984 a second Symposium was held, which by virtually any standard was a resounding triumph, not so much in terms of the substantive offerings, although they were impressive, nor in terms of the number of attendees. The triumph was a palpable change in attitude and perception. Even though there were only 300 in attendance, they were fully representative of the region and the leadership of the region, and they came not so much out of curiosity as to participate. Something was truly different in the region. Whereas previously one would presume parochialism and argue (possibly at some risk) for a regional point of view, within a period of two years this had essentially switched. Regionalism was the accepted mode, against which one might defend a parochial view.
I have emphasized the change in view, and apparently down played the details and substantive accomplishments for the simple reason that the change in view (vision) was the primary objective of the whole enterprise. But this does not mean there have not been some very objective and impressive signs of this change. Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that the region went literally overnight from being the 143rd market area in the United States to becoming the 29th. This did not occur by mirrors or black magic, but through the simple expedient of stopping fighting. Previously, the various communities were so antagonistic that they would not allow themselves to be included in a single Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA). As a consequence they splintered and were largely ignored when it came to looking at the big market places. The groundwork for the single SMSA had been laid, in large part, through many years of hard work on the part of Tom Chisman, a local television station owner from Hampton. Early on, he became a leader and strong supporter of the Future of Hampton Roads Inc., and the total effort paid off. Tidewater, or Hampton Roads as it prefers to call itself, is now very much in the top 50.
The SMSA is not the only change. The Chambers of Commerce have come very close to uniting, and the United Way is now one for the region. A regional sports authority, which had been created in 1963 and largely moribund ever since, has been revived, and is currently developing site selection plans for a regional stadium and sports complex. To the surprise of everybody, the mayors and city managers of three cities appeared on television and publicly said that it made no difference where the stadium might be placed, just so long as it was in the best site for the region. What will eventually happen, who knows, but that statement simply could not have been made two years previously. Tourism is now being approached on a regional basis, and the fragmented arts and cultural community has come together in a Regional Arts Council.
It might appear that concern for the Sea had dropped out, but not so. The Marine Resources Opportunity Group had developed solid plans for the culture and marketing of hard clams in addition to some profitable ideas about seafood marketing in general. And last, the Marine Industries Group had cast a hard and critical eye on the operations of the Port of Hampton Roads, to the point that the Port Authority — which had largely seen fit to work in a low-keyed, business as usual sort of way, suddenly found new energy, and has embarked on a major new effort to market the Port.
It would doubtless be incorrect to attribute all of these changes only to the existence of Tidewater’s Future, or to the Future of Hampton Roads as it is presently called, but nobody that I have been able to talk to questions that the change in perception is real and that the Future of Hampton Roads Inc. has been very instrumental in the process. Perhaps the least earth-shattering but most graphic representation of the change of view appeared in a cartoon heading the editorial page of the Newport News Daily Press, following the second symposium. The cartoon shows the region as a puzzle with Newport News as the last piece being fitted in. To appreciate the impact of this particular editorial art, it must be known that over the years, the city of Newport News has resisted virtually every attempt at regional cooperation. Indeed when the whole project first started, there was real question whether any representation would appear from that city. Furthermore, it was the Daily Press, which editorially and in many other ways, championed the separation. The mere existence of this cartoon in the place that it appeared is taken by many as proof positive that hell has frozen over. The change is real, and that’s the Story.
The bottom line is that the folks didn’t let Henry Clay down. They did have the courage to dream — and the fruits of that dream are now becoming tangible. None of this is to suggest that all the battles have been won, nor that much does not remain to be done. But the fact of the matter is that the perception has altered, and nobody can go home again, even if they wanted to.
EPILOGUE AND WINDOW ON THE FUTURE
It may be said without fear of contradiction, that the future of any place lies with its children. As part of the second symposium, the 11th graders of the region were invited to participate in an essay contest on “The Future of Hampton Roads.” The children were invited to imagine a future they would like to be a part of, and the report on it as if it were “really” there. No further instructions were given, nor was any suggestion made as to what the future might look like. It is interesting to note that all of the winning essays (one from each city, chosen by their teachers) presumed a unified region, and most of them went so far as to describe some form of consolidated government in the time frame they wrote about (usually 2010 or there abouts).
But beyond the specifics of their visions, which were rich and varied, there hovered a spirit of expectation and openness. Virginia Chin from Chesapeake took a “bird’s-eye” view, and this is what she saw:
“As I view this world today, I see a land of marked improvement. It is a land which has been uplifted by technology. The future holds much for Hampton Roads. One must allow it to grow. To do so, humanity must lend a helping hand. One must forget his limitations; instead, fly free and reach for the sky.”
1. ibid pg 8
2. Frank Burns and Judy Ellison were actually part of the team that I had assembled to put the program together. They worked closely with me for the duration and contributed an enormous amount.