change – Barbara Waugh

“I grew up thinking that change was cataclysmic. The way we’ve done it here is to start slow and work small.”

Title: Worldwide Personnel Manager
Company: HP Labs
Location: Palo Alto, California
Age: 53


Barbara Waugh is a 14-year veteran of Hewlett-Packard. But she’ll never be mistaken for the slightly geeky, pocket-protector-wearing engineer that many people associate with the “HP” way. Back in the 1960s, Waugh was a fiercely committed civil-rights activist who was involved in the Freedom Schools movement. She was part of a winning class-action antidiscrimination suit against the University of Chicago. She spent time as an actor in a socialist-feminist street-theater troupe. She even served for a night as a bodyguard for Angela Davis.

Make no mistake, though. Waugh is an HPer through and through. “This is the best place I’ve ever worked,” she says, “including the women’s center that I helped to develop” — at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. In fact, as worldwide personnel manager for HP Labs, she now works with some of the most “HP people” at HP — the 900 scientists and engineers and 300 support staffers who make up her division. A central research operation, with facilities in (among other places) Palo Alto, California, Bristol, England, and Tokyo, Japan, HP Labs is the centerpiece of HP’s decades-long commitment to pioneering new technologies and commercializing new products. Waugh’s official role is to run something called the World’s Best Industrial Research Laboratory program (WBIRL). Her real role, though, is to work with others to update the HP way for new times and for a new generation of businesspeople.

Waugh hasn’t abandoned any of her ideals — or lost any of the fire in her belly. She’s just championing those ideals, and finding that fire, in a different setting. “Why am I here?” she asks. “Where better to wage my battle than in one of the most powerful agents for change on the planet — a giant company in a world where companies, even more than nations, shape the future? And where are we more likely to win the battle than in this company, which has kept a balance between profit and decency, and which has had such an enormous influence on other companies?”

By all accounts, Barbara Waugh is a singular agent for change inside Hewlett-Packard, a global giant with annual revenues of nearly $42 billion and with more than 127,000 employees. Says Joel Birnbaum, 60, director of HP Labs and senior vice president of R&D: “Barbara is a paradox — an unlikely blend of the deeply spiritual and the perceptively rational. Her sensitivity to people’s needs and her creative spirit produce unusual levels of trust and commitment from colleagues, and it often leads to startling results.” What Waugh does inside HP Labs — and, increasingly, throughout the entire company — sounds familiar: She helps people in this huge, highly respected, and sometimes complacent organization to communicate more, to collaborate more, and to innovate more. And the way she does so is original and exciting. “I’m often introduced as being ‘in charge’ of change,” she says. “I’m not in charge of anything. My role is to create mirrors that show the whole what the parts are doing — through coffee talks and small meetings, through building a network, through bringing people together who have similar or complementary ideas.”

Waugh makes change by making connections — a process that she calls “amplifying the positive deviants.” (When’s the last time you saw that term in a reengineering manual?) “The ’60s way of doing things,” she says, “was to identify a very complicated organization, pick out its worst elements, and go after them. You’d attack them.” Today she takes the opposite approach: “You seek out the positive deviants and support them. You feed them; you give them resources and visibility.”

Steve Hummel, 40, a member of the technical staff at HP Labs, produces semiconductor crystals. He’s a self-described “lab geek” — and one of Waugh’s positive deviants. “Big companies, by their very nature, try to get people to conform,” he says. “They try to mold you into a robot. Barbara saves souls from conformity. She identifies and develops people who are willing to challenge the status quo.”


Waugh’s most recent campaign for change began five years ago, when Birnbaum asked her, “Why does no one out there consider HP Labs to be the best industrial research lab in the world?” He then suggested that Waugh meet with people from consulting firms to see if they could offer some answers. She did so — and was horrified by the firms’ canned responses and sky-high fees: “They wanted $300,000 for a ‘needs assessment.’ Then they wanted $1 million a year for three years, and to have up to 10 consultants at a time living with us. Was I missing something?”

Waugh reported her misgivings to Birnbaum. In response, he challenged her to lead the effort. She accepted — but insisted that she and Birnbaum begin by asking questions rather than proposing answers. Using a worldwide employee survey, she canvassed for answers to basic questions: What does it mean to be “the best” research lab: having the most Nobel laureates? filing the most patents? What will it take to become the world’s best lab: more people? different people? new priorities? better marketing?

The inquiry generated 800 single-spaced pages of feedback and identified three primary challenges. Programs: HP Labs simply had too many projects and too few priorities. People: The organization didn’t remove poor performers quickly enough, and rank-and-file researchers didn’t have the freedom they needed to do their jobs well. Processes: The “information infrastructure” was inadequate. HP Labs researchers, for example, lacked certain much-needed technology-creation tools.

The feedback, says Waugh, was “800 pages of frustrations, dreams, and insights.” But how could she capture and communicate what she’d learned? How could she share this powerful critique with senior management? The last thing she wanted was to preach through PowerPoint. So instead of creating bullet-point slides, she drew on her experience with street theater and created a “play” about HP Labs. She worked passages from the surveys into dialogue and then recruited executives to act as staff members, and junior people to act as executives. The troupe performed for 30 senior managers. “At the end of the play, the managers were very quiet,” Waugh remembers. “Then they started clapping. It was exciting. They really got it. They finally understood.”

The ultimate challenge, of course, was to move HP Labs toward the future. Here Waugh embraced two guiding principles. First, it would be up to the people of HP Labs to move the organization forward; she couldn’t do the job for them. Second, deep-seated change could occur only as a result of incremental improvement: If you want to make a big difference, then you need to help people achieve little victories. “The notion of a ‘change agent’ is problematic,” Waugh says. “You don’t manage change. You help to create the conditions for it. You help people to do what they already want to do.”

Her model for change prizes pragmatism over promises — small wins within an existing system over total, start-from-scratch transformation. Waugh arrived at this model by learning from the mistakes that she saw during her years as a political activist. She became “horrified and fascinated,” she recalls, by a phenomenon that she saw over and over again: Radical groups kept subverting themselves — instead of subverting the systems that they were trying to change. “We would betray and sabotage each other in ways that were much worse than anything our enemy could ever do to us,” she says. Why? Because the activists who belonged to those groups pursued goals — eradicating sexism in theological education, to name one example that is dear to Waugh’s heart — without creating a means to measure progress. As a result, activists spent their energies on measuring one another’s commitment to the cause rather than on what was supposed to be getting done.


That’s why Waugh and WBIRL have spent the past five years cultivating more than 100 small, achievable, grassroots initiatives, all designed to make measurable improvements inside HP Labs. Employees devise initiatives and, if those initiatives are deemed worthwhile by Waugh and by people in senior management, the staffers are provided with cash assistance, the use of Waugh’s network — and the chance to bend her ear. “Most people don’t really need money,” she says. “What they need is someone to listen. And listening is an active thing. You can have five meetings where you listen to people, really listen to them describe their dreams, and then go home feeling that you haven’t done anything. In fact, they’ve done it all, but you’re exhausted.”

Waugh tends to listen most closely to colleagues who are asking concrete answers to simple questions. Five years ago, for example, two engineers asked, “Why don’t people talk to each other more, even at the coffee pots?” In response, they decided to lead Friday-afternoon “chalk talks” — informal discussions of whatever technological issues happened to be on people’s minds. The talks drew between 50 and 150 people, and spawned various spin-off groups. Chandrakant Patel, 38, one of the researchers who started the chalk talks, had a special interest in heat transfer (the heat that is dissipated when a computer is running). He pulled together six other people from around the company who had an interest in that topic, and soon they were hosting a two-day conference for 65 people. Now there’s an annual “thermal symposium,” hosted by various HP divisions. Patel has even converted a storage room into his own “thermal-sciences lab.”

Eugenie Prime, the manager of corporate libraries for HP, had her own simple question: “How can we find the people we need to talk to within HP?” With WBIRL money, she created a Web-enabled database, called CONNEX, that helps thousands of HPers worldwide to swap ideas. For years, she struggled to get backing for her project; now it’s a knowledge-sharing model that’s been studied by both Bankers Trust and the U.S. Air Force.

That story is vintage Waugh. “You’ve got to partner with what’s out there — or you’re going to be irrelevant,” she argues. “You’ve got to integrate change into line management and into where the real priorities of an organization are set — into the places where performance evaluations get written and projects get funded. It’s better to do something small and conventional that can actually make a difference than to do something big and far-out that isn’t going to go anywhere.”

And over time, Waugh believes, small initiatives can lead to far-out results. A case in point: the creation of a new rallying cry for the entire Hewlett-Packard organization. Three years ago, during a meeting to plan a celebration of creativity at HP Labs, Laurie Mittelstadt, 42, a materials engineer whom Waugh calls “my best sidekick,” revisited WBIRL’s mission and posed a simple yet powerful question: “Why aspire to be the best industrial lab in the world? Why not be the best lab for the world? In fact, why not say, ‘HP for the World?’ “

The subtle shift of language tapped into a new reserve of energy. A senior engineer at HP Labs created a picture of what “For the World” meant to him. He took a famous photo of Bill Hewlett and David Packard, in which both of them are staring into the garage where HP began, and superimposed a photo of the Earth taken from an Apollo spacecraft. Waugh’s group turned that picture into a poster for an HP Labs Town Meeting. People from the rest of the company became so enthusiastic about the image that about 50,000 of them bought the poster. The image now appears on HP mugs, T-shirts, and holiday cards.


“I grew up thinking that change was cataclysmic,” Waugh says, “and probably accompanied by music. The way we’ve done it here is to start slow and work small. At some point, it begins to multiply, and you get transformation — almost before you realize it.”

What’s Fast

Barbara Waugh has been working for 14 years to change Hewlett-Packard — and working for almost 40 years to change the world. In a white paper titled “The Self-Organizing Transformation of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories,” Waugh and coauthor Kristin Cobble, an organizational consultant, captured some of the lessons that they have taken away from both their successes and their setbacks. Here are some excerpts.

1. Think small. “Help happen what wants to happen. Assume resistance is a valid response and don’t try to change it. Over a short time, small scale short-term efforts, fueled by the passion of the people leading them, result in large-scale long-range transformation.”

2. Focus on the task at hand. “As human beings, when we’re gathered together to do something and we don’t know what it is, we don’t know how to tell if we’re doing it or not, and we are going to go crazy. Set your charter to do things that can actually be accomplished with the people you have, with the resources at hand. That doesn’t mean you have to dream small. But dreams are the context for your task, not the task itself.”

3. Place whatever you’re working on in its next largest context. “Look at each part in the context of the whole, that whole in the context of the next larger whole.”

4. Be the change you wish to see. “If we want to see more risk-taking, we must ourselves take more risks. If we want people to dream bigger dreams, we must ourselves dream bigger dreams. If we want the whole person to come to work, we must bring all of ourselves to work.”


5. Don’t just talk — listen and question. “Not knowing what should happen can be more important than knowing, it can give others the room to create and generate new ideas.”

6. Think ahead. “Track what a project allows for and then what that allows for and so on: The bottom line impact of many projects based on people’s dreams doesn’t show up until the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th derivatives of the projects.”

Katharine Mieszkowski ( is a Fast Company senior writer based in San Francisco. Contact Barbara Waugh by email (