Archives for October 2010

Exploring the Roots of Large-Group Change Techniques

With organizations and their environments in a state of constant flux, organizational development scholars have been challenged to create and practice methodologies that enable fast, yet comprehensive change. In answer to the call, a wide range of large-group change techniques has emerged to promote whole-systems adaptability. While the technologies differ in their focus and approach, all share a common assumption base, stemming from a deep intellectual root system.


Strip away the visions, strategies, metrics, reports, and at its core, organizational change occurs through committed and energized people. Whether the challenge calls for a radical productivity improvement, a breakthrough innovation, or the development of an exceptional customer service culture, change requires people, working collectively, to engage in conversations and experiences that inspire new ways of seeing, thinking and acting (Dannemiller & Jacob, 1992). Paraphrasing sociologist Philip Selznic, ‘strategies take on value as committed people infuse them with energy’ (1957, in Mintzberg, 1994).

While our organizational challenges necessitate collective learning and creativity, the collective situation that organizations face is often not apparent, as people see challenges from their own frame of reference (Argyris, 1980). When people do not connect the dots between issues and opportunities, organizations remain fragmented and inefficient. Schein (1996) suggests that gaps between the operating norms, worldviews, and interests of various groups in organizations-mainly those who operate on the front line, those who engineer systems, and those who lead-create a cultural divide that prevents learning and whole-system adaptation. When organizations attempt to redesign or reinvent themselves, says Schein, the cultures collide and failure occurs. Schein’s antidote is to create mutual understanding amongst stakeholders so that joint opportunities can be identified and realized.

What does mutual learning and co-creation look like and how is it facilitated? In answer to the call, a wide range of large group change techniques has emerged to join organizational members around the process of diagnosing, envisioning and enacting fast, effective change. The large-group change techniques, heralded as a breakthrough in change implementation theory (Bunker & Alban, 1992 ), enable large numbers of stakeholders to join around pressing organizational challenges, by creating a common appreciation of why change is necessary, to what and how-activities typically reserved for the top team. Proponents claim that large-group techniques produce better substantive outcomes, and just as importantly, widespread understanding and commitment amongst the people who need to implement them (Bunker & Alban, 1992a; Weisbord, 2004). As Dannemiller and Jacobs (1992) suggest, the change techniques are a revolution in common sense. They contend that when you “Bring together all the interested and affected parties to a change, provide them with the right information and an opportunity to work together interactively-be they 5 or 500-and they will create their future. Most important, they will then be empowered to do the right things to make that future a reality. Nothing more than basic common sense” (p. 481).

While large-group change methodologies are relatively new, their genealogy stems from a solid theoretical foundation including systems thinking, action research, and group dynamics, amongst others. Below, I define large-group change techniques and then turn to exploring the rich theoretical assumption base from which the techniques have evolved.

Large-Group Change Techniques

Building on the foundational notion that organizations are best understood as whole systems, large-group intervention technologies bring together the stakeholders of a system (from 32-2300) to join around important organizational challenges (Bunker & Alban, 1997; Manning and Binzagr 1996). A number of large-scale technologies have been developed since the 1980s including Future Search, Open Space, Simu-real and the Search Conference, to name a few (Bunker & Alban, 1997). All technologies are designed to connect the stakeholders of a system around a series of meaningful and progressive conversations. Owen’s (1992) Open Space-the least structured approach-asks participants to define the meeting topics and facilitate or attend the meetings of their choosing. Alternatively, Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff’s (1995) Future Search Conference joins stakeholders, working in max mix groups, in successive tasks from reviewing the past, to diagnosing the present, to envisioning and planning for a preferred future.

Independent of the technique employed, large-group techniques engage stakeholders in activities to promote individual and organizational learning in service of longer-term organizational capacity building. Here, change agents act as guides and role models, creating the space and time for stakeholders to join around organizational challenges and to develop a joint diagnosis, strategy and action plan. Employing a whole systems perspective, change agents facilitate a deep appreciation of the relationships amongst stakeholders by bringing them together to dialogue around and achieve a broader mutual understanding of their interdependence and the impact of change in one area to the others. With a focus on the preferred future that people want to create, people are assumed to act responsibly and in accordance with universal human needs and values. The opportunity to sensemake, learn, engage in dialogue, build relationships and facilitate an emotional attachment to the challenge and to colleagues, have all been identified as important levers for change (Manning & Binzagr, 1996; Huy, 2001).

While not exhaustive, a brief description of six large-group change methods is provided below to demonstrate the range of techniques available. These methods include Appreciative Inquiry Summit, Future Search, Open Space, Self-Design for High Performance, Whole-Scale Interactive Process, and World Cafe Conversations. For a fuller description of large-group techniques refer to Bunker and Alban’s (1997) Large Group Interventions and Handbook of Large Group Techniques (2006). For a comparative framework, refer to Weber and Manning, (1998). Together these resources were used to develop the descriptions below.

Appreciative Inquiry Summit

Cooperrider and Srivastva’s (1978) Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is the art of asking questions to discover the life-giving elements of a system when it is at its best-most alive, effective, and capable. The philosophical underpinning holds that the stakeholders of every system have untapped and inspiring insights, and that this energy-once mobilized-is what drives transformational change. Accordingly, AI questions ask people to share their most positive stories and aspirations, including achievements, potentials, innovations, strengths, high point moments, lived values, competencies, and insights. Over the course of a summit, typically running from one to three days, stakeholders gather in small and larger groups to first discover ideal statements of excellence, then to develop dreams of preferred futures based on the idealized statements, and then to design solutions and action plans together.

Future Search

Developed by Weisbord and Janoff (1995, 2000), Future Search convenes a representative group of 64 stakeholders (customers, suppliers, managers, subject matter experts, etc.) for a three-day conference to focus on a common organizational challenge. Through a series of structured activities, participants reflect on their past, explore their present, create ideal future scenarios, identify common ground and make action plans. The authors refer to their technique as a “learning laboratory” (p. 2) whereby people work through complex issues and dilemmas to create a sense of clarity and commitment for moving forward. The authors describe the experience as a roller coaster ride during which participants get on-board, explore reality (despair), take responsibility for their part, create visions, and plan realistic actions. The process has been widely used for both organizational and community development with reportedly great success throughout North America and internationally including Europe, Africa, India.

Open Space

Harrison Owen’s (1992) Open Space brings together individuals who are interested in a challenge or issue. Participants are invited in share potential ideas and agenda items and to become discussion leaders for others who want to join them. Interested parties then meet and together they accomplish whatever it is they want to, from pure discussion to action planning. For each meeting, topics and recommendations are recorded, posted for all to see and also compiled in a report. Owen suggests the power of the process comes from its ability to connect people around purpose, especially when the issues are complex or contentious. Open Space has been used with success in a variety of industries and cultures to achieve a wide range of goals including strategic planning, organization redesign, market research and product development.

Search Conference & Participative Design

The Search Conference methodology, first developed in 1959 by Fred Emery and Eric Trist and later refined by Fred and his wife Merrelyn, is based on the assumption that people, working collectively, will find common ground, design preferred futures, and act responsibly, given the right conditions – mainly systems thinking, people within the system involved, participant rather than expert driven problem solving, democratic structure, effective dialogue and search for common ground (Emery & Purser, 1995). Accordingly, the Search Conference process brings groups of stakeholders together for a series of conversations: environmental analysis, followed by system analysis and preferred futuring, followed by an analysis of systemic constraints that may prevent progress. Stakeholders are encouraged to follow the Search Conference process with a series of participative design workshops, in which stakeholders learn how to design a mutually respectful, democratically oriented, organization. Outcomes include the development of “to be” designs and action plans, based on the dual principles of redundancy of parts and redundancy of functions. While first developed and practiced in Australia, the methodology was introduced to North American organizations in the early 1990s and has been widely employed in the public and private sectors.

Self-Design for High Performance

The Self-design for High Performance change methodology (Ledford & Mohrman, 1993) begins with top managers defining the broad parameters for a high-performance, high-involvement workplace. Next, a team of organizational members from all levels and functions begin the process in earnest by identifying the guiding values and developmental needs of the system. Changes are implemented iteratively, but with the whole system in mind, by the multi-functional, multi-level team. Reporting on the results of an intervention within a multi-plant manufacturing organization, the authors reported a notable impact in the areas of job satisfaction, job design, supervision, control and teamwork. They also concluded that the politics of information sharing and cooperation between some units prevented a fundamental shift in the organization.


Developed by Kline (1992), Simu-real brings up to 50 stakeholders of a system together for a one-day session to participate in simulated activities and follow-on conversations that tap into the effectiveness of both formal and informal relationships within an organization. Topics for a Simu-real session are defined in advance by management or an organizing committee, as well as decision-making protocols. Simu-real has been used in a variety of organizations for the purpose of problem solving, strategic planning, organizational design and relationship building.

Whole Scale Interactive Process

The Whole-scale Interactive Process, based on the work of Lippitt (1983), Beckhard (1967) and Dannemiller and Jacob (1992) convenes a representative sample of the whole system of stakeholders in a summit style conference for the purpose of creating a joint data base around why change is needed, to what and how. Learning, teamwork, and empowerment are key value-oriented themes that underpin this approach. Accordingly, activities include talks from speakers to share key insights and knowledge, exercises to explore the status quo from multiple perspectives, visioning activities and conversations to enable realistic action planning. Dannemiller and Jacob (1992) refers to the process as a revolution of the common sense, for if you bring together the right people, give them useful information, and provide them with the space to work cooperatively, they will create a robust and doable preferred future. The process has been widely used in diverse organizational settings and results including the development of frame breaking strategies, relationships and innovations (Dannemiller Tyson Associates, 2000).

World Cafe Conversations

Juanita Brown’s (2005) World Cafe is a methodology for hosting conversations about issues, challenges, and opportunities that matter. In this technique, much time and attention is devoted to defining provocative questions that table facilitators ask and stakeholders ponder. The analogy of the cafe is meant to capture the spirit of a setting designed for informal, yet meaningful conversation. With each table assigned a facilitator and a unique topic, people move from table to table over successive rounds of conversation depending on their interests. Each round of conversation is designed to link and build on previous rounds and as people move between groups they cross-pollinate ideas, discover new insights and define common ground. Often, the collective intelligence of the stakeholders is captured via colourful artistic depictions of key themes in murals. The authors claim that relationships amongst stakeholders are strengthened as people converse, build on insights, and co-evolve aspirations and plans for the future.

While the specifics of the techniques vary in their focus, involvement parameters, degree of structure, and time frames (Weber & Manning, 1998), all share a set of common assumptions (Manning and Binzagr, 1996), which I turn to below.

Assumptions Underlying Large-Group Techniques: How the Theoretical Roots Inform Practice

Pasmore and Fagans (1992) developed a continuum of participation from lower level techniques that ask participants to conform and contribute to higher-level techniques that ask people to challenge, collaborate and co-create. Interestingly, the authors point out that different forms of participative approaches involve different assumptions and techniques, which produce different results. By nature, a conforming and contributing approach to participation limits stakeholder participation to small incremental adjustments within an existing system; a form of redecorating per se. While redecorating efforts have their place, the scope and focus of the change initiatives are necessarily bounded within the current operating paradigm and systems architecture. However, when a full and open-minded exploration of what can be is required-dismantling and rebuilding so to speak-higher forms of participative techniques are required to provide opportunity and space for people to think and design beyond the current system. Large-group techniques based on a set of core assumptions that promote systems thinking, learning and co-creation, enable the highest forms of participative competence (Pasmore and Fagans, 1992).

Manning and Binzagr (1996) identify a set of core assumptions that underpin all large-group techniques. Below, I explore this deep root structure by looking back to identify the theoretical origins and looking forward to show how each assumption informs current practice.

Assumption 1: Central to all large-group change techniques is the assumption that organizations are “whole systems.”

Viewing organizations as whole systems causes one to see the patterns and connections between system elements, not simply the reducible parts. While reductionist thinking causes one to isolate and study the parts in a sequential cause-and-effect paradigm, whole systems methodologies surface the web of relationships between people, structures, norms, processes, and so on, to explore how the parts interact to influence the whole. As Marvin Weisbord (2004) suggests: “the main ah ha of open systems thinking is that everything counts” (p. 201).

Theoretical Roots

Kurt Lewin (1947) was amongst the first scholars from the social sciences to borrow ideas and theories from the biological sciences to provide a conceptual lens for understanding human behaviour. From a system’s lens, Lewin developed the profound insight that behaviour is a function of the complex relationship people have with their environment. In order to understand human behaviour and promote change, reasoned Lewin, one needs to understand the rich interplay between environmental forces (for example rules, protocols, systems, structures) and personal psychological forces (for example, thoughts, aspirations, needs, desires, fears) that either push toward, or pull away from ideal solutions.

Lewin referred to a stakeholder’s immediate system as one’s life space-the interplay of external and internal forces that shape how one sees and responds to the world. To understand these forces, Lewin designed typological maps, defining the relationships between supporting and opposing forces around a change goal. He surmised that as opposing forces were diagnosed and reduced, enabling forces would create change, a change formula he referred to as unfreezing, moving and refreezing (Lewin, 1947). Lewin’s understanding that challenges cannot be removed from context, dissected into chunks, and isolated to decipher a single cause, informed his research philosophy and methodology, later referred to as action research. Appreciating that if you want to understand a system, you must seek to change it, action research engages the researcher and client in a learning journey to explore organizational dilemmas within the context of the perceptions and aims of the key players and the systems’ stew in which they live (Schein, 1996; Weisbord, 2004).

Lewin’s discovery-that motivation is a function of the complex interaction between psychological, social, and physical forces, and not simply a function of how well one is trained and rewarded, as hypothesized by Frederick Taylor-paved the way for profound openings in organizational science (Weisbord, 2004). For example, Lewin, working alongside colleagues Ralph White and Ronald Lippitt, showed that leadership style had a profound impact on the behaviour of followers. Working with groups of boys who belonged to volunteer arts and crafts clubs, the researchers found a striking difference in the boys’ behaviour as they varied their leadership style from autocratic, to democratic, to laissez-faire. With autocratic or laissez-faire leadership, the boys were much more likely to be aggressive or apathetic, while with democratic leadership the boys were much more likely to play nice and stick to task. Commenting on the forces creating the variations, the researchers concluded that tension (or annoyance with the leader), freedom of movement, rigidity of group structure and each child’s style of living, were critical variables influencing the boys’ behaviour (Lewin, Lippitt & White, 1939 in Weisbord, 2004).

Across the pond in the UK, Trist and Bamforth (1951), of the Tavistock Institute, identified the importance of both social and technical systems (STS) for worker productivity, motivation, and sense of belongingness. Working with members of a coal mining company, and responding to the anomie that developed due to the disruption of their teamwork as a new technology was implemented, Trist introduced a technique that attended to both the coal miner’s need for social cohesion and the industry’s need for efficiency via new technology. The STS perspective enabled designers to see that both social and technical systems are necessary and need to be aligned and jointly optimized.

The interplay between behaviour and environment is a theme that has had remarkable staying power. From Lewin’s (1947) early observations that behaviour cannot be understood outside of the context of its environment, systems thinking has evolved from a focus on working with individuals or groups in first generation OD theories, to a focus on organizational transformation in second generation theories, to a focus on continuously evolving whole systems in third generation theories. Accordingly, while the first generation OD approaches of the 1950s, 60s and 70s focused on personal development, job design, and group dynamics, contemporary techniques emphasize organization-wide transformation and on designing whole systems for continuous and cumulative change (Seo, Putnam and Bartunek, 2004).

Application to Large-Group Techniques

Large-group theory facilitates whole systems transformation via a number of techniques. Many approaches, including Dannemmiller’s (2000) Whole Scale Change, Weisbord and Janoff’s (2000) future search, and the Emery’s (1996) Search Conference begin with an examination of the environment to ascertain the organization’s responsiveness to the internal and external drivers of change-the systems stew so to speak. To promote the ability of participants to view their organization as a series of interconnected parts, stakeholders are tasked with exploring the social and task-orientated relationships amongst people, between units, throughout levels, and between the organization and its partners. The resulting broader, mutual appreciation of their interdependence enables stakeholders to understand the impact of change in one area on the others. Moreover, as stakeholders explore their challenges from a wider-angle view, opportunities emerge for deep frame breaking change throughout all levels and functions. Via participation in the process itself, stakeholders develop expanded mental models, new relationships, and skills for collaboration-all factors that alter one’s life space, enabling personal and organizational transformation (Dannemmiller, 2000; Weisbord & Janoff, 2000).

Assumption 2: The best way to view organizations as whole systems is to promote dialogue among the stakeholders of the system, a notion Marvin Weisbord (1992) refers to as “getting the whole system in the room.”

Given that people see and understand their world from the vantage point of their life experiences (Lewin, 1947) and cognitive schemas (Argyris, 1980), dialogue amongst the stakeholders of the system enables people to explore issues and opportunities from a wider-angle view (Dannemiller & Jacobs, 1992; Schein, 1996; Weisbord, 2004). By bringing system stakeholders together from diverse, yet connected functions, perspectives, levels, and disciplines, people develop an understanding of their interconnectedness. Moreover, moving between small and large-group forums, people have an opportunity to relate with each other, note differences and similarities, and develop a real appreciation and empathy for each other’s interests (Hirschhorn, 1992). At its most basic level, collective conversations enable people to see beyond their habitual patterns of thought and action and to diagnose their challenges from a more holistic view. As new learning is absorbed through dialogue and experimentation, the players become rooted in a deep sense of knowing that provides a context for moving forward together.

Theoretical Roots

Identifying and involving the gatekeepers (or stakeholders) of the system is another pivotal finding of Lewin’s (1953) that has stood the test of time. While working with the anthropologist Margaret Mead during World War II, Lewin conducted the first of many experiments that led him to appreciate the core role that gatekeepers have in unfreezing, moving, and refreezing a system. The setting was Iowa during WWII, when Lewin was asked to help reduce civilian consumption of rationed foods, mainly meat. The problem was that even though traditional meats were scarce, families were resistant to trying other non-scarce meats such as beef hearts, sweetbreads, and kidneys.

Knowing that housewives were the shoppers and preparers of food, Lewin reasoned that they were the gatekeepers who controlled the situation. He believed that if the housewives were engaged in the problem-solving process, they would be more likely to change their shopping and meal preparation habits. To test this hypothesis, Lewin set up a controlled experiment with several groups of housewives. In one group, a nutrition expert lectured the group on the benefits of cooking and consuming the non-scarce meats and provided cooking tips and recipes. In the other groups, the women were given the facts, and asked to discuss and create their own meal plans. Lewin’s hunch was confirmed. Women in the “discuss and decide ourselves” groups were more likely to change their eating habits than the group who was lectured to. Specifically, while 3% of the group that was lectured to served up the non-scarce meats, 32% of the “discuss and decide ourselves” groups prepared the meats for their families (Lewin, 1953 in Weisbord, 2004). Lewin believed that when gatekeepers are involved in defining the change problem and designing the solution, restraining forces are reduced, thus enabling change to occur. Moreover, because solutions fit within the context of the gatekeeper’s revised life-space, they are doable and more likely to be supported with enabling anchors (Schein, 1996).

Building on Lewin’s (1953) pivotal finding that involvement leads to commitment, Beckhard (1967) was amongst the first to experiment with engaging the whole system in problem solving (Bunker & Alban, 1992a; Dannemiller & Jacobs, 1992). Beckhard’s confrontation meeting brought together large groups of managers representing the whole system (upwards of 70 people) for the purpose of information collecting, information sharing, priority setting, action planning and follow-up. Referring to the benefits of the approach, Beckhard identified better, faster decision-making, based on accurate, real-time data and increased commitment to organizational goals. Residual results included an enhanced capacity for decision-making amongst people as well as better communication and collaboration between units (Beckhard & Harris, 1967)

Application to Large-Group Change Techniques

Employing the dual insights that the gatekeepers are pivotal players and involvement leads to commitment to change, large-group techniques are designed to connect the stakeholders of a system around a series of meaningful and progressive conversations that move from a diagnosis of the challenge in its current context to creating a vision of the desired future to action planning (Bunker & Alban, 1992 a; Seo, Putnam and Bartunek, 2004)

While some techniques, like Open Space (Owen 1992) assume that the “right” people are those who join in dialogue, other techniques like Weisbord and Janoff’s (2000) Future Search or Dannemiller and Jacob’s (1992) Whole Scale Change purposely define the max mix groupings, so that the stakeholders are mixed to the max. All methods enable stakeholders to mix in different configurations and to gather as a whole in plenary sessions to promote the cross-pollination of ideas and a deeper insight of the system dynamics (Bunker & Alban, 1992a).

Lewin’s (1947) action research process provides the basic methodology for this joint learning journey (Bunker & Alban, 1992 a; Dannemiller & Jacob, 1992; Manning & Binzagr, 1996). Unlike traditional problem solving approaches whereby top managers diagnose, decide, and pass their solutions over the fence to implementers, collective conversations and action learning amongst a wide group of stakeholders enables learning, deciding, and implementing to be “one and the same” (Dannemiller & Jacob, 1992, p.486). Reflecting on their success at Ford Motor Company, Dannemiller and Jacob (1992) claim that: “a common database was a critical ingredient to the success at Ford. Seeing the world through the eyes of each other enables large groups of people to find common ground. By building a common database of dissatisfaction, vision, and first steps needed to bring about change, a paradigm shift occurred in which a critical mass of the system made a commitment to change. There exists a saying: you can influence as far as you can see. At Ford, the farther they could see, the more they chose to influence.” (p. 485)

Assumptions 3&4: Organizations are socially constructed AND organizational members have the capacity to self organize and redefine their reality.

Daft and Weick (1984) describe organizations as interpretive systems and organizational reality as a function of the dominant mental models of organizational members. From this social constructivist perspective, organizations are what we make of them or what we make them to be. If organizational reality is a reflection of the collective thoughts and activities of members, then organizational transformation occurs as members join to articulate, test, and refine their mental models, leading to expanded behavioural repertoires (Barrett, Fann Thomas & Hocev, 1995). This process of acquiring and applying new insights is the process of learning (Argyris & Schon, 1996; Crossan, Lane, & White, 1999, Garvin, 1993; Hedburg, 1981; Stata, 1989).

Historical Roots

Once again, Lewin’s (1947, 1953) work provides the deep root structure from which other theoretical advances follow. Viewed from a cognitive perspective, Lewin’s notion of unfreezing, change, and refreezing can be understood as unlearning and relearning (Schein, 1996). Unfreezing occurs as learners are exposed to and accept disconfirming data, thus opening up the possibility for learning. Change occurs as new insights are formed via experiences, experimentation, and feedback to cause a frame-breaking cognitive restructuring. New insights become anchored as they are supported by revised norms, protocols, and organizational features.

Appreciating that it is unsettling and anxiety-provoking for members to examine and adjust their mental models, Lewin took great care to create a psychologically safe space for stakeholders to explore competing assumptions and co-create a set of revised, holistic ones. As Schein (1996), reflecting on Lewin’s technique, notes: “His involving workers on the pajama assembly line, his helping the housewives’ groups to identify their fear of being seen as less ‘good’ in the community if they used the new proposed meats, and his helping them to evolve new norms were a direct attempt to deal with learning anxiety. This process can be conceptualized in its own right as creating for the learner some degree of “psychological safety” (p. 29-30).

Learning anxiety, Ron Lippitt (1983) discovered, is reduced when the group task is goal-oriented rather than problem-focused. Working with large groups (from 30 to 300) in the 1970s and 80s, Lippitt noticed that a group’s vitality, creativity and commitment was enhanced when members were forward looking. Comparing the results of groups focused on problems or aspirations, Lippitt observed that groups focused on a preferred-future not only created more innovative and robust solutions, they were also more energized and committed to achieving them. For Lippitt, the key to preferred futuring was the involvement of all system stakeholders (Bunker & Alban, 1992a; Dannemiller & Jacob, 1992).

The seminal work of Argyris and Schon (1978, 1996) on overcoming defensive routines to enable double loop learning, has become instrumental to our understanding of cognitive development. For Argyris and Schon, learning involves the detection and correction of error, whereby single loop learning occurs as members reflect and adapt within their current cognitive framework and double loop learning challenges members to expand their cognitive repertoire. In essence, Argyris and Schon suggest that organizational transformation requires the ability of members to overcome their defensive routines by confronting existing assumptions and revising them as the environmental context shifts.

Academics have continued to study the many processes and conditions associated with the development of new conceptual insight within a community of learners. Those focusing on conversation and discourse (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocev, 1995; Ford & Ford, 1995) suggest that how organizational leaders shape the collective conversations during change determines which challenges or opportunities get noticed, how they are understood, the solutions that emerge and the actions that are taken. Those exploring community learning (Brown & Dugid, 1991; Cook & Brown, 1999) have identified how social interaction enables the exchange, synthesis and broadening of individual member knowledge into the synergistic knowing that resides amongst the group.

Key to the construct of group or community learning is the notion that members absorb new insights through active participation and insider involvement, as members adopt the worldviews, practices and language of their community (Brown & Duguid, 1991; Lave and Wenger, 1991). As new assumptions and practices are embraced and embedded in norms, protocols and organizational features, organizational culture, routines and practices are transformed (Schein, 1996).

Application to Large-Group Change Techniques

Building from the notion that organizational transformation occurs as people acquire and apply new insights, all large-group change techniques engage stakeholders in conversations and experiences that enable shifts in assumptions and behaviours. Moreover most techniques enable participants to surface and examine deep-rooted assumptions and beliefs that lead to frame breaking, gamma oriented changes (Weber & Manning, 1998).

To overcome defensive routines, large-group techniques provide welcoming spaces for stakeholders to learn together. All approaches provide procedural and logistical guidelines for facilitation, as most techniques guide the nature and flow of conversations, pacing, and behavioural protocols. Future visioning is employed as a low-risk way for members to explore competing perspectives and co-create a shared, holistic set of aims (Manning & Binzagr, 1996; Weber & Manning, 1998). As members converse, share stories, shape scenarios, and build a common database of ideas and experiences, a sense of “knowing” amongst the stakeholder community is generated, building common ground for change. Together, these protocols and methods foster an inviting and psychologically safe nutrient environment for conversing and learning (Hurley & Brown, 2010; Weber & Manning, 1998).

Dannemiller’s (2000) Whole Scale Change Process provides a fitting example of how community learning and organizational transformation occur over the course of a three-day summit. By working through a series of conversations, from why change to what and how, stakeholders have an opportunity to join around common challenges and shift attention and meaning making from joint diagnosis to joint design to joint action. Interestingly, the authors suggest that each conversation provides a foundation for subsequent conversations, such that stakeholders first build a joint need for change, followed by an ideal vision, and then action plans. According to the authors, if any conversation is superficial or missing, change will not occur: “Our version states that for change to occur, the product of dissatisfaction with the present situation (D), a vision of what is possible (V), and first steps to reach the vision (F) must be greater than resistance to change (R). If any element is missing, the product will be zero. Since we all resist change to some extent, if the product is zero we will not overcome resistance and no change will occur. In other words, if people are able to absorb new information, they will see the world differently (paradigm shift) and, once their paradigm shifts, their behavior will change as a result” (Dannemiller Tyson and Associates, 1994, p. 6).

Assumption 5: All people share a set of values that are inherently “good” and these values ultimately influence voluntary collective action.

All large-scale methods share the assumption that when people come together out of their own volition to connect in service of a common organizational cause, they will do so responsibly and be driven by a set of core values defined by McGregor’s (1960, 1985) Theory Y assumptions and Maslow’s (1954) basic human needs for love, belongingness, and respect (Weber & Manning, 1998).

Historical Roots

It was McGregor (1960, 1985) who, in his seminal book The Human Side of Enterprise, highlighted the profound insight that our basic assumptions about human nature and motivation are “behind every managerial decision”(p. 33). McGregor labeled these deep rooted assumptions as Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X assumes that employees are intrinsically unreliable, so much so that, left to their own devices, they will avoid work and shirk responsibility. On the other hand, Theory Y assumes that people are intrinsically motivated, as long as the right conditions are present, including motivating goals and the time, space, and resources to achieve them.

McGregor surmised that Theory X assumptions are deeply rooted in our managerial psyche and responsible for our tendency to design organizations with tight, centralized controls and to lead people via coercion in the form of rewards and punishments. Describing the insidious sway of this mindset, McGregor (1960, 1985) explains, “The ‘psychological environment’ of industrial management-like water for fish-is so much a part of organizational life that we are unaware of it. Certain characteristics …of organizational life are so completely established, so pervasive, that we cannot conceive of them being otherwise. As a result, a great many policies and practices and decisions and relationships could only be – it seems – what they are” (1985, p. 49).

McGregor devoted his life’s work to attempting to point out the inadequacies of Theory X thinking and the negative, self-fulfilling results of Theory X behaviours. Much like Maslow’s (1954) hierarchy of human needs, McGregor understood that people have common, core needs that ultimately drive behaviour. While physical needs, such as hunger drive a person to seek sustenance, so too does the need for belongingness cause people to join groups and communities. Higher-order needs, mainly those for self-esteem, status, and ultimately self-fulfillment, can only be satisfied through developmental pursuits that result in new capabilities, achievement, recognition, and fulfilling one’s creative potential.

Organizations with steep hierarchies, centralized decision making, and tightly controlled work protocols, claimed McGregor, deprive employees of their inherent human needs. A philosophy of management by direction and control of employees has limited value in motivating people whose important needs are social and egoistic. Not only is human development stifled, reasoned McGregor, a lack of opportunity for real development causes employees to become “sick”, with the resulting symptoms expressed as malaise, resistance, and hostility. According to McGregor, “People, deprived of opportunities to satisfy at work the needs that are now important to them, behave exactly as we might predict-with indolence, passivity, unwillingness to accept responsibility, resistance to change, willingness to follow the demagogue, unreasonable demands for economic benefits. It would seem that we may be caught in a web of our own weaving” (1985, p. 42).

Theory Y assumes that work can be an intrinsic and welcome source of stimulation for people, which produces its own reward in the form of self-pride, personal satisfaction, and self-actualization. Consequently, people seek challenging experiences via which they can develop, grow, and hone their innate talents. The role of management then, is not to direct and control, but to unleash and nurture the talents and ingenuity of employees. Finding ways to integrate, rather than subsume human needs and aspirations with those of the organization, suggested McGregor, would accomplish the dual goals of employee development and organization development-an idea that has gained much traction in recent years (Pasmore & Fagans, 1992).

McGregor argued that the inherent value of Theory Y assumptions was in the possibilities this new thinking would open up for managerial practices and polices. At its root, McGregor was careful to emphasize that Theory Y does not mean country club or laissez faire management, but rather trusting that, given the right conditions, employees can and will behave responsibly and work to advance meaningful organizational objectives. As Schein (2010), commenting on the nexus of McGregor’s Theory Y explains, “And that misunderstanding-that Theory Y means country club, loose management, means participation-is where I think, to this day, people don’t understand that that was never what McGregor said. What McGregor said is, “If you trust your people you get better results” (p. 114).

Application to Large-Group Change Techniques

Building squarely from a Theory Y assumption base, large-group techniques are designed to tap the goodwill, ingenuity, and natural motivation of organizational members. It is assumed that when people are empowered to solve pressing organizational challenges, they will do so responsively and the common ground they seek will be rooted in universal human needs and values (Weber & Manning, 1998). To enable people to discover how personal aims are connected to organizational goals, large-group techniques join people, out of their own volition, in service of a common need or cause. Participants are invited, not mandated, to attend sessions and while present, encouraged to self-select into working groups with tasks that are meaningful to them. For example, Owen’s (1992) Open Space technique asks people to co-create their own agenda and invites people to join around the topics of interest to them. With the law of two feet, people are guided to attend meetings that matter to them and to leave when their interests and energy shifts. With a philosophy of whoever comes are the right people, it is acknowledged that the people who attend are the most qualified, able and passionate about the work. Similarly, whatever happens is the only thing that could have prohibits people from searching for the one right answer, in service of tapping the ideas and solutions of those who are gathering in the here and now. Finally, when it’s over, it’s over acknowledges that getting the work done is more important than sticking to an arbitrary schedule. Alternatively, Juanita Brown’s (2001) Cafe Conversations ask people to identify and join the conversations that appeal to them most, and Cooperrider’s (1978) Appreciative Inquiry is a way of asking questions and envisioning the future that builds on the basic strengths and deep rooted desires of people. In so doing, these techniques surface the strong links between individual aspirations and organizational goals and squarely place the onus of transformation on the shoulders of the system stakeholders.

Designers of large-group change techniques suggest that the role of the facilitator is to create both the psychological and physical space for joint discovery. The role of the facilitator is not one of defining goals and directing change, but of discovering or unleashing energy for change (Bunker & Alban, 1992a; Weber & Manning, 1998). For example, Owen (1992) suggests that the facilitator’s role during an open space meeting is to “create an open forum in order for the ‘energy’ that always exists among a group to emerge” so that it can be channeled for productive use (in Manning & Binzagr, 1996, p. 274). Similarly, Weisbord and Janoff (1995) describe Future Search as a process that unleashes creative energy as people “simultaneously discover mutual values, innovative ideas, commitment, and support” (p. 3) and Dannemiller and Jacob (1992) describe their work as “releasing the knowledge, creativity and skills of the workforce”. (p. 482)

Why do Large-group Change Techniques Work?

Perhaps Dannemmiller’s (1988, in Dannemiller & Jacob, 1992) arthritic organization is an apt starting place for exploring why large-group techniques are effective. An arthritic organization is one in which functional units cease to communicate or connect, due largely to the specialization of tasks and the development of horizontal fiefdoms. As domains become tightly defined, rigidity sets in and the system is no longer able to adapt its processes or relationships in response to changing environmental conditions. In effect, each silo of the organization works independently in isolation from all others.

If we think of the organization as interconnected systems that must collaborate and connect in service of its customers, we see that Dannemiller’s arthritic organization sets the stage for polarization and confrontation, rather than collaboration and alignment. The arthritic organization, with procedural, emotional, and structural blockages at each joint, prevents people from communicating, learning, and adapting. As mishaps occur between units who need to collaborate but don’t, feelings of depersonalization and paranoia escalate, ultimately resulting in greater mistrust and polarization of goals and values (Hirschhorn, 1992).

Large-group change techniques, on the other hand, appear to be an antidote to the causes of conflict, and conversely, an enabler of collaboration. First they bring the stakeholders of a system together in a common, public setting, with boundaries for respectful interaction and skilled facilitation. Structure and boundaries create both a physical and psychologically safe space for people to voice their opinions, be heard, and hear others. People working in targeted task groups have an opportunity to connect with each other, note differences and similarities, and develop a real appreciation and empathy for each other’s interests (Dannemiller & Jacobs, 1992; Hirschhorn, 1992). Small-to large-group activities give people the opportunity to join and feel connected to each other and create the shift from individual to group goals; important elements for enabling people to work collectively (Jack Gibb, 1970, in Dannemiller & Jacobs, 1992).

As people join in and connect with each other, the stage is set for learning. Through action learning, a common database is built first around “what is”, then around “what can be” and next around “how to move forward”. Accordingly, people develop new, expanded mental models that provide a platform for the creation of super-ordinate common ideals. As they work collectively, people are confronted by the reality of their humanness and can choose to dissolve harmful stereotypes that have filtered their images of each other and prevented the formation of healthy working relationships. Simply put, large-group techniques provide an alternative structure-from a slow moving arthritic one, laden with unhealthy conflict producing dynamics-to an adaptable, collaborative one, whereby members share and agree on data, define joint interests, find super-ordinate values and build relationships. Activities, Dannemiller (2000) suggests, lead to the creation of healthy, aligned organizations with “one heart, one brain” (p. 27). An antidote to the arthritic organization syndrome, large-group technique creates porous, easy to penetrate boundaries amongst people and units of all levels, to enable deep and pervasive action.


In his video Productive Workplaces, Marvin Weisbord suggests that in its heyday, factory managers adopted the techniques of scientific management, but left out the values associated with worker respect, union-management cooperation and employee development. “They took the words”, Weisbord claims, “but forgot the music.” As a result, scientific management became paradoxically associated with piecemeal pay and management-worker strife. Noting the same sentiment, McGregor (1960,1985) referred to new strategies without a requisite shift to Theory Y attitudes as putting “old wine in new bottles” (1985, p. 42). It’s a familiar story, and over the years we’ve seen techniques such as workplace re-engineering and the learning organization, hastily employed, minus the rich theoretical underpinning which gives the techniques their real force and meaning.

As we have seen, large-group change techniques are based on a sound, theoretical underpinning including whole systems thinking, action learning, conversation, and group development (Weber & Manning, 1998; Manning & Binzagr, 1996). Armed with a deep appreciation of these theoretical assumptions, contemporary scholars and practitioners are mixing and matching various activities from the original techniques, and incorporating new thinking and methodologies such as scenario planning (Bunker & Alban, 1992 b). These innovations confirm that the conceptual framework underpinning large-group theory is remarkably robust and that as long as the values are honoured, techniques can be employed interchangeably. As practitioners and theorists, it is our duty to honour the deep root structure from which our innovations are based, thus ensuring the words and music evolve together.


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