‘Does 'What We Do' Make Us 'Who We Are'? Organizational Design and Identity Change at the Federal Bureau of Investigation

by Ranjay Gulati, Ryan Raffaelli, and Jan Rivkin

Executive Summary — Both the design and identity of the FBI changed greatly in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This study tracing the co-evolution of the Bureau’s organizational design and identity before the 9/11 attacks and through three subsequent phases finds that successful changes to organizational identity are likely to be delayed after a radical external shock: Management is likely to be constrained, appropriate design is probably unclear, or both.

Author Abstract

A good match between an organization's design ("what we do") and its identity ("who we are") is often seen as a key to strong performance. But maintaining a tight fit between design and identity is difficult when a profound external shock forces an organization to change both. How do design and identity change together? Prior research says little on this question because it has tended to study design change and identity change separately. This paper links the two by examining how the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) transformed itself after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Drawing on 138 interviews within the FBI and archival analysis of Congressional testimonies from 2001 to 2013, we trace how top management shifted the design and identity of the FBI from those of a law enforcement agency to those of a national security organization. Our examination reveals multiple ways in which design change and identity change interacted. We find instances in which urgent focus on design change consumed top management attention and crowded out identity change; in which experimentation in design made it premature to develop a new identity; and in which identity changed in order to support the design that emerged from experimentation. Interpretation of such observations leads us to new propositions about the interplay of design and identity in times of radical change. Overall, the propositions suggest that after a dramatic shock, efforts to ascertain and implement changes in "what we do" will often delay efforts to change "who we are."

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