Introduction to Large Group Intervention
Large Group Intervention (LGI) is the generic name given to a family of formal change management strategies that involve placing large parts of an organization, or even the entire organization, in simultaneous contact with one another to plan how the organization is going to change. Proponents and users of LGIs believe these methods are particularly well suited for organizations that are seeking to establish a shared vision of their future and to build a road to get there. Some LGI models are designed specifically for organizations that are seeking to change the way their work is done (e.g., through reengineering or business process redesign).
Non-profits successfully employing these LGI methods include numerous communities and cities; school districts, schools, colleges and other educational organizations; foundations; hospitals, hospices, nurse associations, and other healthcare providers; international relief organizations; trade and professional associations; and governmental agencies at the federal, state, and local levels. The LGI experience of a Catholic religious order was the case study for a recent professional journal article.
Although many different LGI models have been developed and are in current use, they generally have common origins and are rooted in similar principles. Among these principles are getting the “whole system” into interactive discussion, using a carefully designed mixture of communication elements, using processes designed to make effective use of participants’ emotions as well as thoughts, and facilitating effective dialogue while validating differing perspectives.
Large Group Interventions are usually staged in a setting away from the workplace, where participants can focus on the objective at hand without the distractions of the normal work environment. Artificial boundaries within organizations, such as functional departments, are routinely and intentionally fractured to facilitate communication and participation. These boundaries often get in the way of addressing important needs of organizations. Strategies such as TQM and BPR, as well as strategic planning itself, demand that each member of the organization think about the needs of the entire organization rather than his or her piece of it. “Democratic,” participatory efforts by organizations may facilitate their members to see beyond the borders of their individual organizational niche, and develop the spirit required to make TQM not simply a “program” but a working philosophy.
The general philosophy inherent in planning change is to recognize that there is resistance to change within organizations, and change is more likely to be successfully implemented when people affected can participate in the process, influence the process, and prepare for its consequences. As expressed by one of the architects of the Future Search LGI model, Marvin Weisbord: “People support what they help create.” Other practitioners of LGI methods might add, “…and it’s a better creation for their involvement.”
Much more than a device for overcoming psychological resistance, LGI is an effective approach to substantially improving the planned change and achieving more desirable results for the organization. One dimension of additional benefits is more effective communication about the changes planned. Plans become far less distorted when everyone affected is hearing the same message at the same time, rather than having it communicated through the grapevine, through regular hierarchical channels, or not at all.
Another advantage of LGI is that those affected by the changes can provide invaluable input. It is rare that a few layers of management (or a subset of the full breadth of functions) within an organization can have an adequately detailed grasp of the whole. In most change management strategies, those at the bottom of the hierarchy, who are usually the most aware of the “nuts and bolts” of current reality, are often frozen out of the planning process. Most LGI models bring in a broad base of stakeholders to brainstorm together and to weed out problems and unintended consequences that are often otherwise built into initial designs for change, because they are invisible to the traditionally unrepresentative group of staff involved in planning.
A third advantage of LGI is that it builds a diverse and broad base of support for planned changes. Useful in all cases, this advantage becomes particularly powerful when circumstances alter, planned changes need to be modified, and time is of the essence. Circumstances that otherwise could be expected to derail well-laid plans can be addressed by a robust and already-engaged subset of the organization. Plans are far more open to effective alteration mid-stream when developed via an LGI approach.
LGIs tend to bring together people from various hierarchical levels within the organization, who otherwise may have minimal direct interaction. Many organizational development experts believe that bringing large groups of organizational members together pays an additional dividend, which would not otherwise have been created, of creating positive social linkages among organizational members. Large Group Interventions create a new and different organizational bonding, which increases networks of informal communication within an organization and makes for more robust capabilities.
All of this can occur in a three-day period, significantly curtailing the process time of conventional change management planning.
Origins of LGI
The origins of LGI are often traced back to the work of Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin. During World War II, there was a meat shortage in the United States, leading to rationing. Lewin and Margaret Mead worked with the War Department to find a way to encourage consumers to use unused parts of the cow. Lewin devised an experiment in which an audience was given a seminar about the nutritional value of these animal parts. Half of those participating were sent home after the lecture, and the other half were placed in small groups to discuss what they heard and to decide what they would do. Those who were so inclined were then asked to make a public commitment to try out the recipes using those cuts of beef. The post-test study found that those who made the public commitment were significantly more likely to have actually bought and tried those cuts of beef. Lewin had found a core principle: we are likely to modify our own behavior when we participate in analyzing and solving a problem and are likely to carry out decisions we have helped make.
Lewin’s work and theories pointed the way toward a different type of consultation, where rather than sowing seeds of change, the consultant helps a client discover what seeds are already present and whether they can be grown. More than just finding the organization’s underlying problem, true diagnosis for Lewin included approaching this task in such a way as to build commitment for action.
His experiments in group dynamics gave rise to the “T-group” of the 1960s and 1970s, and ultimately led to experiments using small group methods in large groups. It was not until the 1990s, however, that large group interventions became a widespread organizational change management strategy. A 1997 book, Large Group Interventions, by Barbara Benedict Bunker and Billie T. Alban, published by Jossey-Bass, did in some ways for LGI what Hammer and Champy’s Reengineering the Corporation did for BPR, creating much broader awareness of, and facilitating organizations’ access to, LGI theory and practice.
Types of Interventions
Bunker and Alban write about eight discrete types of long- term interventions: The Search Conference, Future Search, Real Time Strategic Change, ICA Strategic Planning Process, the Conference Model, Fast Cycle Full Participation Work Design™, Real Time Work Design, and Participative Design. Each management strategy is usually identified with a group of consultants or academics who developed it and earn their livings in the field. Many of the LGI creators write and market publications and step-by-step workbooks, facilitate LGI projects as external consultants, and provide related services, such as conducting educational seminars for organization consultants and others who want to learn more about LGI.
Effectiveness of LGI
Change management strategies, such as those described in previous chapters, have had a checkered record of success. Management is continually searching for a single elixir or magic potion that will result in improved performance. Rarely has a pre-packaged new management system, such as BPR or TQM, lived up to its promises. Some of this may be attributed to faulty implementation. And some can be attributed to workers who have not bought into the changes.
Permitting workers affected by planning to participate in the planning process is one strategy to erode this resistance to organizational change, in addition to generating fresh ideas from people who have expertise as a result of doing their job every day. They may have shied away from making valid, responsible suggestions not only because “no one ever asked us” but because they may feel that their views are not important, or that management does not have an interest in listening to them.
There is not very much empirical information about the success of large group interventions, and most of what we know today is anecdotal. It can be quite costly to shut down an organization for several days for an organizational retreat, and the out-of-pocket costs for consultants, meeting room space, food, materials, and keeping the organization functional while all of this is going on can be prohibitive for many non-profit organizations. Yet the basic theory of large group intervention, that changing an organization through top-down edict often fails because of resistance at the lower levels, may justify this change management strategy. What appears to consume a large amount of resources may in fact be a tremendous time and cost saver when all the false starts, multiple sessions, and cascading communications of an alternative approach are tallied up.
Theoretical Underpinnings/Resistance to Change
An important element in introducing change management techniques is recognizing that humans are resistant to change. First, workers feel that their jobs are threatened. BPR, for example, is identified with massive downsizing and dislocation. Even if employment is not at risk, changing the working conditions, responsibilities, or perceptions alone can appear threatening and engender resistance.
Second, workers reach a comfort level in performing their jobs, and changes in how work is performed suggest that they may have to learn new job skills. For some, this is a positive aspect, but for others, it increases worker insecurity. There is a fear of the unknown.
A representative sample of the more popular LGIs is described below:
1. The Search Conference
The Search Conference was designed by Englishman Fred Emory and Australian Eric Trist. It evolved out of a consulting job to help plan the future of an aeronautical engineering company, which had recently fused from two companies. Conferences are comprised of 30-60 people, selected from within an organization as the key movers and shakers—the experts, those with the most influence, those who will be implementing change, and the general organizational leadership. At least two days are allocated to the conference.
The first task of the conference is to perform an environmental scan in which, through a brainstorming session, attendees make a list of significant external changes affecting the organization within the last 5-7 years. They then break up into small groups and analyze how these changes affect the organization and predict both likely and desirable futures of the organization. The second step is for attendees to make a list of organization milestones and other important developments since they joined the organization, with the longer-tenured employees speaking first.
Third, a list is made (by brainstorming) of what features in the organization need to be changed. Fourth, small-group discussions, working in parallel, focus on the elements that would comprise an ideal organization in the future. Fifth, the conference engages in action planning. Strategic goals are agreed upon, and small groups are convened for each goal to develop the steps to accomplish each of those goals, including a timetable. Finally, a plan is developed for implementation, which often utilizes the democratic, self-managing structures created at the conference rather than the hierarchical, bureaucratic structure of the organization. This intervention is used mostly to improve management in the workplace and empower workers.
2. Future Search Conference
The Future Search Conference evolved out of the work of Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, and is detailed in several books authored or co-authored by one or both of them, including Productive Workplaces (1987), Discovering Common Ground (1992) and Future Search (1995). It typically brings into the same room all of the people of the organization with a stake in its success and may involve as many as 100 participants (although 65-80 is the typical size). Included are those who may not be members of the organization but are important external stakeholders, such as customers and suppliers.
The 16-hour conference conducted over three days focuses on planning for the future and includes highly structured participatory interaction. Consultants who facilitate these conferences guide discussion to look at the work done by the organization and its goals in the context of the outside environment, and focus on reaching a consensus on what constitutes “common ground” as a basis for building the desired future. Areas in which consensus cannot be reached within a reasonable period of time are acknowledged but do not become a focus of the group’s work. Much of the work of the conference is done by 8-member subgroups that manage themselves.
The conference does not bring in outside experts but depends on the expertise of the participants themselves. Planning meetings are held prior to the conference to set the tone and direction, and provide the context for building the work product, which is the development of action plans. During the conference, activities include examining the organization’s relevant past, looking at the present in terms of the situation and the problems facing the organization and external trends affecting it, and identifying priorities. Participants develop stronger ownership of the status quo and responsibility for the future by identifying what they are proud of, or sorry about, with respect to the main problem identified as the focus of the conference; develop a vision for the “ideal” future; identify common themes; and develop “first step” action plans with explicit accountabilities by using brainstorming and breaking up into small planning groups.
Followup meetings are held to maintain participants’ views of the whole system and to check on progress. This intervention is used mostly to facilitate collaborative action toward reaching a goal.
3. Real Time Strategic Change
The Real Time Strategic Change™ method of LGI was pioneered by Kathleen Dannemiller, Robert Jacobs, and several other consultants who perfected the technique at Ford Motor Company. RTSC (now called Whole Scale Change™ by Dannemiller’s firm), which usually takes place over a three-day period, involves an entire organization from top to bottom in a strategic planning process. Whole Scale™ conferences typically involve 300-900 participants, but through the use of technology and sophisticated, comprehensive logistical planning, some Whole Scale™ interventions have involved thousands of people at a time. A first step in Whole Scale™ is for organizational leadership to agree among themselves how much power they’re willing to relinquish to the participants.
Leadership is called upon to agree upon initial constraints on the degree to which they are willing to permit participants to influence the outcome. However, the general thrust is to allow people who are affected by the strategic planning to have a say in putting the plan together. RTSC includes an environmental scan so participants can understand the current situation and the changing nature of the environment. They often hear the perspectives of outside experts, including clients and customers. Small-group discussions involve participants selected from a wide range of suborganizations, so each participant hears various perspectives. When RTSC is successful, it is often the result of management positively responding to the suggestions made at the conference by participants, who then feel empowered.
The structure of the conference is based on a model of organizational change that suggests that change will only occur when resistance to change is overcome, and that three factors—dissatisfaction (a decrease in the comfort level people have with the organization), vision (a shared sense of overall direction of the organization), and the ability to move the organization in the direction of positive change (known as “first steps”)— are large enough.
Large Group Intervention techniques have also been created to make BPR participatory throughout the organization. LGI is used to foster communication among all workers relating to plans to make any major changes in vision, work processes, organizational structure, and human resources issues. Details about some of the techniques can be found in the Bunker and Alban book, and new methods are being developed and refined constantly. A family of LGIs is devoted to improving workplace design and business processes. Among them are The Conference Model™, Fast Cycle Full Participation Work Design, Real Time Work Design, and Participative Design. The Conference Model™, designed by Dick and Emily Axelrod, uses five 2-3 day conferences over a five-month period to compress the time that conventional reengineering processes take, and is much more participatory than BPR. Fast Cycle Full Participation Work Design™ is a method attributed to Dr. William Pasmore of Case Western Reserve University. It is used to increase the velocity of changes made in the socio-technical aspects of organizations, and involves analyzing how an organization’s social resources (the skills of its workers, knowledge and experience, communication networks) are consonant with its technical resources (how the work actually gets done).
Tips for Beginning a Large Group Intervention
Various LGI experts point to different factors they deem critical to the success of an intervention, but many of these differences appear to be matters of emphasis rather than real disagreements. Here, then, are some of the key considerations before deciding to take up LGI within a particular organization:
1. Take the time and care to achieve clarity of purpose: what does the organization want to be different as a result of this undertaking? Invest a lot of conversation to get the issue framed well and stated well.
2. Be willing to step into some anxiety and unknown waters in order to achieve something extraordinary.
3. Involve the whole system, or at least a critical mass that is truly representative of the whole. Use a steering group that cuts a diagonal slice through all the organization’s layers and across all its functions.
4. Create conditions for effective dialogue among people with different perspectives. Use experienced resources to guide the design and to facilitate the large-group events. Interactive meetings of 80-100 people (or more) are not the place for untrained facilitators.
Up Close: Gerald Gorelick
Gerald Gorelick is President and founder of Gerald Gorelick & Associates, Inc., a Harrisburg-based consulting firm focusing on conducting large group interventions and other organizational development services for small- and mid-sized businesses, not-for-profit organizations, and governmental units. He started the company after 21 years of senior management experience with HMOs, insurers, hospital and health centers, and a data processing/service company. A student of organizational effectiveness throughout his management career, he was an agent for transformational change in several of the organizations he worked for, introducing quality circles, TQM and BPR, and other methods for producing significantly better operating results. He received formal training in Future Search by its originators, and in Whole Scale Change™ by Kathleen Dannemiller and her associates.
“ I’ve personally been part of both Future Search and Whole Scale™ events,” Gorelick relates. He points out that Future Search is the LGI model of choice for organizations that want to create a different future for themselves, a future that reflects the best thinking of the whole range of their stakeholders (management, staff, board members, clients, funders, volunteers, and so on) and that enjoys these stakeholders’ active support and involvement. “The entry point may have been desire for a compelling strategic plan, a need for building common ground or community across diverse interests, or the apparent need to build new partnerships,” he says. “I’ve seen Whole Scale™ used to redefine the respective roles of human resources and management in a large governmental agency and to redesign a core business process for another agency.”
In his experience, Whole Scale™ or Real Time Strategic Change can accommodate very large groups of participants in a single event, compared to Future Search.
“ I’ve seen Whole Scale™ or Real Time Strategic Change with as many as 400 participants and I know of successful engagements with several thousand,” he says. “Future Search is a very well-crafted model but it is limited to perhaps 50-100 participants—but it is highly reliable in delivering on its promises of defining common ground, creating a shared picture of an organization’s desired future, and initiating action steps that cut across established boundaries.”
Marv Weisbord, who together with Sandra Janoff designed the Future Search model, has been a consultant and teacher to Gorelick over many years and has shared limitations of the technique.
“ Weisbord and Janoff have taught me that Future Search conferences do not allow you to make up for weak leadership, transform a bureaucratic culture in 48 hours, teach people how to learn, or change the dynamic interactions of any intact group in 48 hours,” Gorelick points out. “What this strategy does permit you to do is speed up discovery, learning, and action planning enormously; build better relationships across critical boundaries, such as with boards of directors; and stimulate voluntary actions that need to happen but cannot be legislated, planned, led, or even envisioned in advance. No one knows what’s really needed, what others want, or what’s desirable or practical until they discover it together in the conference.
“ Initiating a Large Group Intervention strategy can often be stressful for organizations,” he contends. “Leadership typically feels a combination of excitement and anxiety about these processes. This is to be expected, since it entails stepping out into the unknown to a certain extent, and charting new territory for the organization in a more ‘public’ setting than usual,” Gorelick maintains. “A key component of this type of intervention is for me to spend time early on with management so that they understand what this type of intervention entails for them and for the rest of the organization, and so that I can make my own assessment of their readiness.”
For those without personal, firsthand experience attesting to the success of LGIs, there is an appropriate amount of skepticism around the proposition that “real work” can get accomplished interactively in a room of 60 or 600 people. Experienced consultants use techniques to allay these concerns.
“ Concerns around potential chaos, dominating and/or silenced voices, and falling into ‘groupthink’ are legitimate but very effectively addressed in the LGI model designs I’ve been involved in,” claims Gorelick. “It can be—and perhaps should be—a roller coaster as the event unfolds. But by its end, people are surprised at how far they’ve come individually and collectively,” he perceives. “There’s a point in every successfully planned and executed event, typically not occurring until the last day, where the group, and the organization, makes a turn,” he observes. “Those who attend coalesce around a commonly held vision, fueled by a legitimate dissatisfaction with the status quo and guided by the collective creation of a set of action steps with accountabilities owned, and the energy is at a level that ensures that desired differences will take hold.”
Gorelick says that new relationships are forged that make for a far-more-robust support net for the planned transformations than any traditional type of planning process.
What advice does he have for the non-profit executive thinking about implementing a Large Group Intervention?
“ Find someone who has experience designing and running them, and have an exploratory conversation,” Gorelick recommends. “A manager who finds him or herself thinking ‘there’s got to be a better way’ and who has an inclination to try something that will tap the hearts and minds of more than the usual people involved, would be well served to look into these methods, but it is not something to be undertaken without experienced assistance.”