Mike Vargas was sure he had walked into the wrong room.
It was 8:30 AM and Vargas, 37, a personnel management consultant at Hewlett-Packard's Integrated Circuit Business division, was desperately looking for the hotel ballroom with the division's management meeting.
But the room he was in was set up like a courtroom. Who were the barristers with the black robes and white wigs? And that judge at the front looked exactly like Lance Ito!
Then Vargas began to recognize some of the faces in the jury box. He took a second look at the paper he'd found under his door that morning: a subpoena, summoning him to jury duty to decide the fate of his division's business plan.
The charge? Difficulty of implementation, in the first degree. A team of internal skeptics, expert witnesses, and a consultant would bring the case against the plan. Another team, led by the division's general manager, Mike Matson, and the marketing manager, Neal Carney, would try to convince the 90 members of the jury that the plan, which called for greater risk taking and substantial culture change in the 2,200 person division, was worthy of their vote.
The trial-as-business-meeting was the brainchild of Geoff Ainscow, the division's 54-year-old organizational development specialist, who figured that if management wanted change, the meeting itself needed to send that message. By dramatizing the issues at stake in the new plan, HP's senior management could show — not just tell — the participants at the annual meeting how difficult the change would be and how serious a commitment it would require.
Ainscow hired Sterling Productions from San Diego, California to stage the trial, which was held in the ballroom of San Diego's Wyndham Emerald Plaza hotel. It took two-and-one-half weeks to prepare every detail — including the Lance Ito look-alike — for the two-day event. The only ones unprepared were the members of the jury, from whom the trial theme was kept secret.
The prosecution presented its case against the plan with the help of an outside consultant who identified HP's past efforts at change that had failed. "The consultant was armed with the things that most people think, but don't think they can say," Ainscow notes. Then the defense summoned its witnesses. "The drama was in having expert witnesses describing all that people at HP had already done to ensure the plan's success," Vargas recalls.
The defense's presentation was so impressive that the jury gave its unanimous support to the new business plan. "I didn't feel any pressure to vote for it, but there was a groundswell of support because the staff had done so much to show that the plan would work," Vargas says.
According to Ainscow, the trial did more than just convince the group. "It created a huge amount of energy and was a lot of fun," he says. Organizing the event also brought together a group of managers in a new way. "We took more risks," Ainscow reports. "There was the feeling that we were all in it together, and either it works or it doesn't."
If a trial seems too emotionally charged, how about a funeral?
Three years ago, when HP "killed off" its Printed Circuit Board division, Geoff Ainscow staged a full-scale New Orleans-style jazz-band funeral, designed to help the division's people deal with the emotional loss and the prospect of moving to other jobs.
The vast majority were not leaving the company, but even so, as Ainscow explains it, for the 300 people who had worked in the plant for years, its closing was a significant personal event.
Rather than just close the facility, HP managers used the occasion to celebrate transitions. "The idea is that all possibilities come from endings," Ainscow says. "One career is finishing and another is beginning."
Ainscow organized pallbearers dressed in black robes and caps, a bishop, and musicians playing somber jazz. A procession of 50 marchers began in the plant's cafeteria and wove through the factory, handing out black robes to all who chose to join them and inviting employees to put items that symbolized their time with the division into an open coffin. The procession ended outside at the burial site, where mourners listened to a 30-minute eulogy recounting the division's history and its contributions to the company.
Once the coffin was buried, the funeral became a celebration. Everyone took off their black robes to reveal white T-shirts with vivid images of the phoenix, the mythological bird that rises from its own ashes, and the jazz band launched into Mardi Gras party music. Ainscow says, "The event was very powerful. It helped people move on psychologically."
A version of this article appeared in the November 1995 issue of Fast Company magazine.