How the FBI Reinvented Itself After 9/11

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the FBI was ordered to reorganize itself from a law enforcement agency to a national security organization. The transformation and the lessons it imparts are documented in a study by Ranjay Gulati, Ryan L. Raffaelli, and Jan W. Rivkin.
  • 27 Apr 2016
  • By Carmen Nobel

It is hard to imagine a more difficult and tragic trial by fire for a new leader. On September 4, 2001, Robert Mueller started his new job as the sixth director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A mere week later, on September 11, al-Qaeda terrorists carried out a massive coordinated attack on the United States, killing nearly 3,000 people with four hijacked airliners—and throwing the FBI’s structure and identity into question.

Since its founding in 1908, the organization had focused primarily on solving domestic crimes and bringing criminals to justice. But in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush expanded the FBI’s mission with a single question for Mueller: What was the FBI doing to prevent the next terrorist attack? And just like that, the brand-new director of the FBI had to figure out how to transform the organization from a law enforcement agency to a national security organization that not only solved crimes but also prevented attacks.

“He thought he was signing up to run a law enforcement agency. He ended up with a job he didn’t sign up for. And God bless him, he pulled it off”

Harvard Business School Professor Jan W. Rivkin’s summation of Mueller’s situation reads like a tagline for a dramatic feature film. “He thought he was signing up to run a law enforcement agency,” Rivkin says. “He ended up with a job he didn’t sign up for. And God bless him, he pulled it off.”

Mueller’s major challenge was also a major learning opportunity for a group of scholars, including Rivkin, who had spent their academic careers studying organizational design and organizational identity.

A comprehensive study of the FBI’s transformation resulted in the paper Does “What We Do”Make Us “Who We Are”? Organizational Design and Identity Change at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, co-written by HBS colleagues Ranjay Gulati, the Jaime and Josefina Chua Tiampo Professor of Business Administration and head of the Organizational Behavior unit; Ryan L. Raffaelli, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior unit; and Rivkin, the Bruce V. Rauner Professor of Business Administration in the Strategy unit and Senior Associate Dean for Research.

Balancing design and identity

Whereas organizational design is concerned with how tasks are prioritized, structured, and coordinated across individuals (“what we do”), organizational identity is defined by the central, distinct, and enduring elements that give meaning and provide purpose to an organization (“who we are”).

“A good match between an organization’s design and its identity is often seen as a prerequisite for strong performance,” the researchers write. “Maintaining a tight fit between design and identity, however, is extremely difficult when an organization’s environment changes. Following a profound external shock, an organization’s design must change, as must elements of its identity. But how do they do so? Do they both change at once? Does one lead and the other follow? Does the sequence depend on the circumstances and, if so, how?”

Drawing on 138 interviews with FBI officials and an analysis of 45 congressional testimonies from 2001 to 2013, the paper details the ways in which design change and identity change interacted during the FBI’s unexpected—and largely successful—transformation.

Broadly, the researchers show that the FBI dealt with hammering out the “what we do” aspect of organizational change for years before really addressing the “who we are” part.

“The FBI offers a critical lesson for managers,” says Raffaelli. “It’s very hard to redefine an organization’s critical tasks and structure if you don’t also account for the organization’s identity. Here the FBI had no choice but to immediately focus on ‘what we do.’ It was clear as soon as those planes hit: We will now do national security and counterterrorism.”

Academically, the paper stands out because it addresses both design change and identity change. In the past, scholars have tended to study those things independently.

Prior research on organizational design indicates the FBI could have handled the situation in one of three ways: One, Director Mueller could have immediately created two separate organizational units, one for law enforcement and one for domestic intelligence, seeking what scholars call “structural ambidexterity.” Two, the FBI could have pursued “contextual ambidexterity” wherein senior management establishes simultaneous structures and processes for frontline employees to balance both missions. Three, it could have simply rejected the new national security mandate.

In reality, it didn’t play out in any of those ways. “Nothing in prior theory led us to expect what we observed—in essence, structural ambidexterity followed by contextual ambidexterity,” the researchers write.

As for identity, prior research would predict a period of confusion immediately after 9/11, followed by the emergence of a clearer sense of “who we are.” Instead, “we observed the rapid emergence of two clear but distinct identities, a subsequent period of identity ambiguity, and eventually a new, unified identity,” they write.

Triage, search, and crystallization

Before 9/11, the FBI had a fairly decentralized design, owing to the local nature of most crimes. The Bureau operated 56 field offices in major cities, each focused on solving local crimes and each ran relatively autonomously. An “office-of-origin” system allowed the field office that started an investigation to stay with the case even if it expanded into other cities. “Headquarters provided only light-handed advisory coordination across offices,” the researchers write.

And until 9/11, the Bureau clearly identified itself as a law enforcement agency. Its official fact sheet read, “The primary function of the FBI is law enforcement.” Today, the fact sheet reads “national security.”

LESSONS ABOUT THE INTERPLAY OF DESIGN AND IDENTITY IN TIMES OF RADICAL CHANGE

  1. At each point in time, an organization benefits when its design and its identity are aligned, in the sense that each supports the other. In particular, decentralized decision making requires that individuals have the correct sense of “who we are.”
  2. At the outset of a change effort, management often does not know what design and identity an organization needs. Instead, it must discover the right design and identity through experimentation.
  3. Both design change and identity change require management attention, which is a limited resource. So changing both at once and quickly is hard.
  4. An organization’s design is often more flexible than its identity, in the sense that design can be changed faster and mandated more easily by top leadership. As a result, an organization called on to change rapidly, because of an external crisis, is likely to adjust its design first and then act to bring its identity into alignment with its new design and its altered environment.

When the researchers met with Mueller in 2009, he explained that the organizational transformation occurred in three stages: triage (immediately responding to the 9/11 attacks), search (forming a plan to tackle national security without foregoing law enforcement), and, finally, crystallization (institutionalizing new systems and behaviors toward a new identity).

In May 2002, Mueller issued a list of the FBI’s new top 10 priorities. No. 1: protect the United States from terrorist attack. For terrorism cases, he nixed the office-of-origin system, mandating instead that headquarters would oversee and coordinate these cases with field offices from the top down.

Many countries maintain two separate entities for law enforcement and national security: The United Kingdom has Scotland Yard and MI5, for example, and Canada has the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. (The Central Intelligence Agency in the United States operates primarily outside the country.) But for the FBI, juggling both missions simultaneously enabled better access to information from local law enforcement officers and newly jailed criminals.

“By having the counterterrorist and the law enforcer be the same person, the FBI can take advantage of the plea bargain system we have in the United States,” Gulati says. “Once the agent puts that person in jail, he or she can say to the criminal, ‘OK, if you want to get out of here, tell me who the others are, and we’ll cut you a deal.’”

To the surprise of the researchers, FBI agents did not seem to fixate on redefining their professional identity during the triage phase, in spite of the new mission thrust upon them. Rather, they focused on the all-consuming task of finding ways to thwart terrorists while also enforcing laws. With missions like that, who had time for an identity crisis?

Integration challenges

After the initial triage phase, the FBI realized the need to improve its threat analysis function; after all, law enforcement agents were not trained to recognize a new wave of threats. To that end, in 2003, Mueller created the Directorate of Intelligence, which established a Field Intelligence Group (FIG) and new security analysts at each of the FBI’s field offices.

That didn’t sit well with some old-guard law enforcers, who didn’t take kindly to sharing both an office and a mission with a bunch of computer geeks.

“Analysts were viewed as second-class citizens, some reporting they were told to fetch coffee for agents,” the researchers write. “Conversely, agents working on conventional law enforcement cases, previously the heroes of the FBI, felt their value was diminished.”

In short, these new, decentralized organizational changes led to delayed identity crises. “It’s easy to mandate structural changes,” Raffaelli says. “But mandates for structural change don’t mean that behaviors will change among the individuals who sit within those structures. And that’s why organizational identity is so important.”

As the researchers note in the paper, “Decentralized decision making requires that individuals have the correct sense of ‘who we are.’”

In 2005, under pressure from a presidential task force, the Bureau established two separate branches—a national security branch and a criminal branch—both reporting to headquarters. “The organizational design ensured that decision-making authority remained firmly at the top of the FBI,” the researchers write.

In the final stages of the FBI’s transformation, the paper explains, Mueller focused on truly integrating intelligence into FBI operations, in terms of both design and identity. This involved establishing a strategy management system based in part on best practices that had been successful in the corporate world: He and his team implemented the balanced scorecard performance management system (created by Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton [Harvard DBA 1973]), and launched a Strategic Execution Team to help the FIGs manage the balance between crime prevention and law enforcement.

Mueller also finally started to home in on the identity issue. He talked about the FBI not in terms of law enforcement and/or national security, but in terms of “threat-based, intelligence-led national security” that encompassed both missions.

The FBI still has work to do in its quest to become a full-fledged national security organization. A March 2015 report by the 9/11 Review Commission praised the FBI for some of its integration efforts, but questioned the practical applicability of others. “The FBI division-level strategic plans are useful as management tools, but they are not uniformly threat-based nor do they align with a needed corporate strategic plan for the Bureau that would allocate resources against current and emerging national security threats,” the report said.

But there’s no question that the organization has successfully prevented multiple attacks since 9/11. The FBI has posted a 10-year list of highlights titled Major Terrorism Preventions, Disruptions, and Investigations, which includes the killing of Usama bin Laden.

Implications for corporate managers and scholars alike

While the paper focuses on the most extreme example of reacting to an external shock, the findings may hold value for any manager dealing with change in the face of outside forces—starting with the question of how to balance attention between design and identity. There are numerous historical and current examples of companies forced to face the external shocks of disruptive innovators or shifts in consumer demand.

Raffaelli mentions that many Swiss mechanical watch companies had to redefine their identity after quartz battery-powered watches nearly rendered them obsolete. Similarly, Gulati references Kodak (which failed to react quickly enough to the public demand for digital photography—even though its own researchers played a role in inventing the technology) and automakers like Ford (which are currently dealing with an evolving view of transportation needs).

“There’s no feeling of ownership surrounding cars anymore,” says Gulati, who meets regularly with Big Three auto manufacturer executives. “Millennials don’t feel like they need to own a car because they have Zipcar and Uber. They don’t want to deal with a parking space and pay insurance and all that stuff. So that’s a game changer for most automotive companies. What does it mean, and how is it going to change who they are and how they do what they do?”

Gulati also notes some wartime parallels between the FBI’s mission shift in 2001 and Harvard Business School’s mission shift during World War II. From 1943 until the end of the war, HBS completely suspended the MBA program in order to devote itself to the training of Army and Navy personnel.

“So you had all these faculty members who were used to teaching MBA students how to run a business,” he says. “And suddenly nothing was about running a business. It was all about supply chains and helping the military figure out the best way to get stuff to Europe. Of course, identity and structure both had to change. And then the war was over, and we went back to the way things were. But in the FBI, there was no going back.”

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About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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