Today at Berkeley Lab

Agents for Change

— By Sabin Russell

If things seem just a little different these days around Berkeley Lab, there may be a reason: Change Agents are afoot.

On Wednesday, Berkeley Lab hosted a Farmers Market on the lawn outside the Bay View Café. It was dreamt up and organized by Change Agents. You can enjoy that fresh food at a new picnic area next to Building 17 conceived, designed, and built by…Change Agents. Last week at lunch hour, outside Building 90, Lab scientists and support staff stepped up to a canvas with paint and brushes to create a mural for Open House. Again: a project of the Change Agents.

So, who are these people?

They are participants in a training program established by Facilities Division Director Jennifer Ridgeway. Taking a page from her career in Silicon Valley, she brought in organizational behavior consultant Larry Liberty to run a series of workshops designed to build “high performance cultures” in businesses and institutions. Groups of 25 employees, handpicked by Ridgeway, attend nine full-day workshops over a nine-month period, focused on the nature of change — how to cope with it, how to take advantage of it, how to make it happen. They also meet as often as twice a week in smaller groups to work on projects of their own choosing, like starting up a Farmers Market.

“It gives people the power to make their environment better,” says Ridgeway. “It’s a grassroots effort to do things differently.”
When she came to Berkeley Lab in 2007, Ridgeway said she was immediately struck by the difference in culture from Silicon Valley, where she had led real estate management for Siemens Medical USA. Over there, she says, it was “a fast-paced, frenetic, process-driven environment.” It was less hierarchical, more egalitarian, and much quicker to embrace change as a vitalizing force. “Change is going to happen. It has to happen,” she adds. “And the results play out every day.”

One class of 25 has graduated from the workshop. A second class is just completing its program. Although most of the participants work for Facilities, the program draws from all over the Lab. Janice Krueger, a finance manager in the Office of the CFO, was part of a group of six in the current class who organized this week’s Farmers Market. “We started with the theme of how to promote a healthy eating lifestyle,” she says. That led to meetings with Café operator Epicurean Group, which had connections to a network of local farmers. “The enthusiasm was infectious,” says Facilities project manager Ross Schaefer, another member of the team.

Facilities safety coordinator Janice Sexson is part of another Change Agent team that is developing a blog in the hope of building an online community of people who work at Berkeley Lab. “We’re developing it as a Facilities blog, but we hope it turns out to be a Lab-wide blog,’’ says Sexson. “We want to find out what people are thinking, what new processes and improvements are possible.”

Another project by the current crop of Change Agents will be to conduct a survey of Lab personnel during the Farmers Market. Like the blog project, the questions for the survey will touch on that theme of community at Berkeley Lab. “We all show up at the same, fenced-in place every day,’’ says Facilities heating and air conditioning mechanic Steve Alford, “but we’d like to get a feel for what sort of community there is, for the Lab as a whole.”

Similarly, last week’s mural painting activity was the project of another Change Agent group, whose goals, says Facilities maintenance supervisor Mike Jang, was “to find ways to get people to interact as a community.’’ As part of the project, residents of Building 90, which comprises several different divisions and departments, were invited to help paint a mural of the Open House poster, which was displayed at the Open House event.

Facilities Division director Ridgeway plans to offer the training to two more groups of 25 in the coming fiscal year. New blogs, new picnic areas, and a new Farmers Market are the visible results of an effort to celebrate change at the Lab, but she also has her eye on boosting performance, Silicon Valley-style. “We want to change the mindset for everyone in this organization,” she says. “We work for the scientists. They are our customers. We want to provide a better product.”