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.


Argyris, C. (1980). Overcoming organizational defences. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Argyris, C., & Schon, D. (1978). Organisational learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Argyris, C. & Schon, D. (1996). Organizational learning II: Theory, method and practice. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Barrett, F., Fann Thomas, G., & Hocev, S. (1995). The central role of discourse in large-scale change: A social construction perspective. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 33(3), 352-372.

Beckhard, R., & Harris, R. (1967). The confrontation meeting. Harvard Business Review, 45(2), 149-155.

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1991). Organizational learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation. Organization Science, 2(1), 40-57.

Brown, J., & Issacs, D. (2001). The world cafe: Living knowledge through conversations that matter. The Systems Thinker, 12(5), 1-9.

Brown, J., & Issacs, D. (2005). The world cafe: Shaping our futures through conversations that matter. San Francisco, CA: Berrett Koehler.

Bunker, B. & Alban, B. (1992a). Editors’s introduction: The large group intervention – a new social innovation? Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 28(4), 473-479.

Bunker B.B., & Alban B. (1992b). Conclusion: What makes large group interventions effective? Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 28(4), 579-591.

Bunker, B. & Alban, B. (1997). Large group interventions: Engaging the whole system for rapid change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cook, S., & Brown, J. S. (1999). Bridging epistemologies: The generative dance between organizational knowledge and organizational knowing. Organization Science, 10(4), 381-400.

Cooperrider, D. & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In R. Woodman & W. Pasmore (Eds.) Research in organizational change and development: Volume 1 (pp.129-169). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Daft, R. L., & Weick, K. E. (1984). Toward a model of organizations as interpretation systems. Academy of Management Review, 9(2), 284-295.

Dannemiller, K., & Jacobs R. (1992). Changing the way organizations change: A revolution of common sense. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 28(4), 480-498.

Dannemiller Tyson Associates. (2000). Whole-Scale change. unleashing the magic in organizations. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Emery, M., & Purser, R. (1996). The search conference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ford, J. D., & Ford, L. W. (1995). The role of conversations in producing intentional change in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 541-570.

Hedburg, B. (1981). How organizations learn and unlearn? In P.C. Nystrom & W.H. Starbuck (Eds). Handbook of organizational design (pp. 8-27). London: Oxford University Press.

Hirschhorn, L. (1992). The destruction of a synagogue community: Polarization in a postindustrial world. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 28(4), 549-565.

Hurley, T., & Brown, J. (2010). Conversational leadership: Thinking together for a change. Oxford Leadership Journal, 1(2), 1-9.

Ledford, G., & Mohrman, S. (1993). Self-Design for high involvement: A large-scale organizational change. Human Relations, 46(1), 143-173.

Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics: Concept, method and reality in social science; Social equilibria and social change. Human Relations, 1(1), 5-41.

Lewin, K. (1953). Studies in group decision. In D. Cartwright & A. Zander (Eds.), Group dynamics, research and theory (pp. 483-492). Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson and Company.

Lippitt, R. (1983). Future before you plan. In R. A. Ritvo & A. G. Sargent (Eds.). The NTL manager handbook (374-381). Arlington, VA: NTL Institute.

Manning, M., & Binzagr, G. (1996). Methods, values, and assumptions underlying large group interventions intended to change whole systems. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 4(3), 268-284.

Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper.

McGregor, D. (1960) The human side of enterprise. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

McGregor, D. (1985) The human side of enterprise (25th Anniversary Printing). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Mink, O. G., Esterhuysen, P. W., Mink, B. P., & Owen K. Q. (1993). Change at work: A comprehensive management process for transforming organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mintzberg, H. (1994). The fall and rise of strategic planning. Harvard Business Review, January-February, 107-114.

Owen, H. (1992). Open space technology. Potomac, MD: Abbott Publishing.

Pasmore, W., & Fagans, M. (1992). Participation, individual development, and organizational change: A preview and synthesis. Journal of Management, 18(2), 375-97.

Seo, M., Putnam, L., & Bartunek, J. (2004). Dualities and Tensions of Planned Organizational Change. In M. Poole, M. & S. Van de Ven (Eds.). Handbook of organizational change and innovation (pp. 73-107). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Schein, E. (1996). The three cultures of management: Implications for organizational learning. Sloan Management Review, 38(1), 9-20.

Schein, E. (2010). In his own words: A conversation with Edgar Schein. Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship, 15(2), 112-120.

Trist, E., & Bamforth, W. (1951). Some social and psychological consequences of the long wall method of coal-getting, Human Relations, 4, 3-38.

Weber, P., & Manning, M. (1998) A comparative framework for large group organizational change interventions. In R. W. Woodman & W. A. Pasmore, W.A. (Eds.), Research in organizational change and development (pp. 225-252). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, Inc.

Weisbord, M. (1992). Discovering common ground. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Weisbord, M. (2004). Productive workplaces revisited. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Weisbord, M., & Janoff, S. (2000). Future search: An action guide to finding common ground in organizations and communities (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Downsizing Your Organization? Lessons from the Trenches

In this current difficult economic climate, many organizations are facing the unfortunate necessity to downsize and streamline. Astute executives and HR managers, many of whom have been through previous rounds of downsizing, realize that they must approach it carefully because both research and experience have shown that there are many negative consequences to this process. The big question for these managers is: “Can we avoid the pitfalls of downsizing and create the best possible outcome for our organization?” The answer is a qualified ‘yes.’ The emotional trauma of downsizing cannot be eliminated totally but the long-term damage to your organization can be minimized. This article will summarize the best practices of organizations and managers who have faced this daunting challenge and the lessons they have learned.

Download PDF: Downsizing Your Organization? Lessons from the Trenches

Change Management From an Engineer’s Perspective

In my 28 years with Shell I have seen many change initiatives. Some were effective, many were not. I never really thought about why. That all changed when I was assigned the task of implementing a series of six business improvement best practices at our two oil sands manufacturing facilities in Alberta. The work processes were already written and the supporting IT tools were developed. All that was left was to roll them out. I quickly learned that this meant the easy part was done.

I am an engineer who had spent my whole career in manufacturing in either technical or management roles. That part of the job was already done. Now I had to learn about change management. I started out reading some books by respected Change Management authors such as John Kotter, Peter Senge, and Jim Collins. I read information on our Shell internal website to see what other countries had done for their implementations. Finally, I attended some training courses put on by change management professionals (none of whom seemed to be engineers, I noted!).

I began to see some trends emerging. The theory is divided into two camps. The first model is the programmatic model – a linear program that takes you methodically from a to b to c. This logical sequential approach leads to a nice neat plan, which appealed to the engineer in me.

More recently an emergent model has come into play. This is a more organic approach where some seeds are planted, but the growth is not systematic or even predictable. You need to be much more flexible to work in this environment, aware of the progress and ready to ride the leading horse. You may not be able to control and report progress as easily as with programmatic change, but with emergent change, when it catches it can spread like wild fire.

The reality is that change is not about one or the other. Truly successful change initiatives have elements of both. Armed with this new-found knowledge I began to reflect on some of the changes that I had seen over my career. What was it about the successful initiatives that made them effective? What was missing in the painful ones? I began to see that there are some fundamentals that must be followed and failure to dedicate the time, energy and commitment to each one is likely to sink your ship.

What is Change Management

When I use the term “Change Management” in my company, most people think of our Management of Change Procedure, which is the technical review of process and mechanical changes to the facility. This is not surprising given the strong process safety focus we have for plant changes. It also speaks volumes about how limited people’s knowledge is about change management which addresses the human element of a new way of operating. It is an enabling activity, laying the foundation for a successful implementation, and it must live at the site level. Successful change results in changed behaviours which is what is needed for it to survive long-term. It can not be imposed from outside of the location.

Change Management is the management and support of organizational and human change. It is about preparing the business for change and ensuring the capability exists to implement and sustain such change. This is not high-level fluff. It happens at the coal face and must be managed there.

Programmatic Change

The dominant theory from 1947 onwards has been that change happens in a linear fashion. This was popularized by John Kotter from the Harvard Business School in 1996, who built on the early work of Kurt Lewin (1890 – 1947). Kotter’s research into successful and unsuccessful change initiatives led him to conclude that failure to adequately address all eight steps in order is a precursor to an unsuccessful change initiative.

It begins with establishing a sense of urgency. This is easier if there are market and competition realities, the so-called “burning platform”, that employees can understand. If they don’t improve they will soon be out of business. It is tough to create a sense of urgency if the business climate is good. This is where you have to focus on problems, threats and opportunities. Employees have to see the new way as better than the current situation or you will stall at phase one.

The next step is to create a guiding coalition. This is a group with the power to lead, working as a team. They must comprise senior decision makers in the organization because “what interests the boss fascinates me”. If upper management is not actively involved, anyone opposed to the change can use this as justification for holding back. The guiding coalition must create a compelling vision of the future to direct the effort and develop strategies to achieve the vision. Above all the guiding coalition has to communicate, communicate, communicate using every vehicle possible. They also have to be role models for the new way. Because they are senior influencers, every step is watched and magnified.

Once the direction is clear it is time to empower broad based action. This is where more and more people begin to get engaged. The role of the guiding coalition is to remove barriers, change structures, and encourage risk taking. Support the new behaviours by purposefully creating short-term wins and visibly recognising people. Create momentum by expanding the reach. Hire people who fit the new model and keep the change alive.

It is all worthless if you do not anchor the new approach in the culture but unfortunately this is where most change initiatives fail. You must ensure that it is imbedded in the leadership and link personal results to the new behaviours.

Emergent Change

The mid 1990s saw the beginning of the emergent change model where change does not have a defined start/stop. It is always happening though progress does not follow a neatly developed plan. Humans are naturally self-organizing. Work with the energy and shape it rather than expecting people to follow a top-down programmatic approach.

Peter Senge has a model called “The Dance of Change Tree”. Reinforcing loops are represented by the visible parts of the tree and include new business processes, networking, business results and personal results. These drive the change process forward. The roots of the tree are the factors that can hold your change process back. These limiting factors show up at the beginning of the change process (no resources, inconsistent leadership behaviours), in the middle (fear and anxiety, resentment, lack of measurement) and ultimately when trying to establish sustainability (lack of linkage to business plans, unclear governance).

In general we spend too much time on the reinforcing loops – the “what” of the change. Be mindful of the limiting factors. Anticipate them and put actions in place to address them. Senge maintains that successful change leaders spend 80 to 90 percent of their time on the limiting loops.

The Change Plan

There is a tendency to undervalue the benefits of a comprehensive change management plan. It is a lot of work, and it takes time and resources so it must be a conscious decision. An analogy is the age-old maintenance repair conundrum, “We don’t have time to fix it right the first time, but we have time to fix it again!” Incorporating change management is akin to “Fix it right the first time”. Failure to get this right will result in resistance to change, project slippage, and lack of sustainability.

There are six steps for managing reactions to change:

  1. Plan – Prepare for people’s reactions. Acknowledge that resistance is natural and expected. Use those who will react favourably to sell to the others.
  2. Communicate – Recognize that communication happens, so decide to manage it rather than letting it manage you. Communicate openly, often and in two-way discussions. Tailor your messages to the audience.
  3. Participate – Participation increases a sense of ownership and control. People want to be part of the solution so find as many ways as you can to involve them.
  4. Influence – Use opinion leaders to send the messages. Early actions demonstrate that this change is serious.
  5. Train – Build confidence and promote skill development with those leading and those being changed.
  6. Respond – Everyone needs to see WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) before they will change. The “What’s In It For the Company” is not what an employee wants to hear. Coaching will help them see the benefits. Adjust the reward system to encourage contribution and change.

There are six elements of the change roadmap and there are no shortcuts. You need to work through all six and continually reassess the status of all six.

Identify the change management activities that ensure the success and sustainability of the program. I like to start with a logo or a slogan that brings an identity and a branding that runs through the stages of the project. You will need a robust governance model involving the site leadership team. It will outline explicit roles and responsibilities for those on the change team and those impacted by it. Detail the timeline, the completion criteria, and the measurement systems. Establish accountability with regular reporting. When using external consultants be sure that they are in a coaching and supporting role. Do not let site management abdicate accountability.

I cannot overstate the importance of leadership, but it is also the most difficult hurdle to cross. Everyone’s already busy but now you want some of the busiest people at your site to take on more responsibilities. Success will only be achieved once you have the commitment of leadership at all layers of the organization. People take cues from the behaviours of their leaders and any inconsistency here is a licence to ignore the change initiative.

Failure to develop a compelling business case is a recipe for disaster. There needs to be a clear business case and the organization must understand how this is relevant to them. The return on change must be well defined. Include the anticipated benefits in the business plan to show that reaping the rewards is not an option, but be sure to also include the implementation costs on the other side of the ledger. At the same time, do not undersell the cost or the time lag before the benefits kick in.

Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholder Engagement, the process of identifying stakeholders, understanding their concerns, and building their commitment, is the most important element of Change Management. You need to know who the stakeholders are, where they sit on the issue, and what you need to do to ensure that you are all rowing in the same direction.

A stakeholder is anyone who touches the project, has influence on the project, or is affected by the project. This becomes a very long list of people. Develop your list by also considering who can provide or withhold key resources, who stands to lose and can prevent a decision from being implemented, and who needs to be informed or kept in the loop. Be specific as you build the list because your action plan will not be a generic one. You need names!

Stakeholder analysis is the process of assessing where teams and individuals stand on your project, identifying how to allocate your resources and efforts, identifying needed interventions and engagement activities and ultimately building your communications plan. The first step is to create a “Stakeholder Map” as shown in figure 6.1.

This is a matrix where you plot out where your key stakeholders sit on the issue. It is not for circulation because it will include your judgements about people’s support for your project. Being very specific about your targets is essential to effective engagement. Focus your energy on the highest priority stakeholders. The Highly Important NoGo’s merit a lot of attention. At the same time the Highly Important Go’s may prove to be a good resource to help this. There is no cookie cutter for this; it is specific to the players, the project, the timing, the environment.

Getting down to detailed engagement strategies is key. Where we often come up short in implementations is in doing broad-brush communications and not truly engaging. This takes time and effort and must be tailored appropriately, but it is one of the most effective change management tools that we have. Each level of leadership needs to be at least one step ahead of the next level in terms of education and support.


A comprehensive communications plan will ensure that stakeholders have the information they need or want in order to participate in successful implementation. The plan will detail what message should be sent to which stakeholder by when and what is the method to be used. Use multiple styles and forms of communication and recognize the need to repeat the message many times.

Match the communications style to the desired outcome. For general awareness and information sharing, a presentation is effective. To build understanding you will need a two-way dialogue with questions and answers. To gain commitment and alter behaviours you will need time and effort covering training, coaching, and reinforcement.

Your communications plan starts with a calendar showing the key milestones. Superimposed on this you add communications vehicles to support these milestones. There are many communications vehicles at your disposal and you need to use them all. Information sharing can be accomplished through presentations, lectures, memos, and videos. Posters and banners provide a visual stimulus. Newsletters can be used to support the e-mail and paper-based audiences, but websites have the advantage of 24/7 access. Clearly the most powerful communication method is face-to-face sessions, both planned and ad hoc, by the site leaders.

Capture and Share Learnings

To improve the implementation’s effectiveness you need to rapidly take advantage of successes and mistakes across the location and continuously improve team and organizational performance. Harvard Professor John Kotter advocates creating “quick wins” as a strategy for broadcasting success. It is just as important to acknowledge mistakes. This serves two purposes. If you have made a mistake you do not want to repeat it. Admitting to a mistake is a big trust builder. Word of mistakes travels quickly so public acknowledgement of this is important to maintain credibility.

Capturing learnings is part of the Think – Plan – Do – Review cycle and must be a conscious effort because organizational learning does not just happen in most cases. Establish the right environment for learning, then apply the change learning competencies of coaching, listening, inquiry, and knowledge management.


Everyone must have the knowledge and skills to perform their roles in the new environment. Training must cover both the business process itself as well as the technical aspects of the job. If people know their roles and they understand how those roles fit into the new process, then you will stand a much better chance of making the change stick.

Sustainability Plan

To be successful the change must become the new reality. This means that it must be embedded in the management system. This is accomplished by implementing processes and structures that promote site ownership. Health checks, using external and internal resources, are an effective way of keeping the assessment unbiased. Here are three key roles that need to be in place:

  • Site Process Owner – is the management sponsor of the process. He/she is the visible champion accountable to ensure that the process delivers the intended results. This involves measurement and audit to ensure that players are fulfilling their roles and to initiate interventions if there are gaps.
  • Site Process Focal Point – is the subject matter expert. He/she is the implementer who knows the details of the process’ inner workings and can coach and educate the participants. The focal point captures the learnings and makes the adjustments in support of the Process Owner.
  • IT Tool Super User – is the person who fully understands the use of any Information Technology programs that support the process. This is not a computer programmer, it is the expert user who understands how the tool supports the business process.

Identification of these three roles for each new business process is fundamental to sustainability.

What Have I Learned?

Leading a change initiative is not for the faint of heart! At the same time it really is not an optional part of implementing a change. Here is a quick list of Do’s and Don’ts:


  • Stay positive
  • Leverage other locations’ experiences
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Build a strong governance structure
  • Develop site ownership
  • Pay close attention to resistance
  • Celebrate success


  • Add a new initiative without removing one first
  • Wait to develop your change roadmap
  • Underestimate the need for constant reinforcement
  • Claim victory too early


Kotter, John, Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, 1996

Senge, Peter, The Dance of Change, Nicholas Breasley Publishing, 1999

Lewin, Kurt, The Dynamic Theory of Personality, McGraw-Hill, 1935


Brian Pritchard is a Reliability and Maintenance Manager for Shell Canada Energy.

The Integration of a Change Management Approach with IT Implementations Should Not Be an Afterthought or Add-on

Too often, implementing information technology initiatives neglects consideration of the human factor from very early in the process. The author demonstrates that attention to organization development and change management in IT implementation has resulted in a positive impact on productivity, job satisfaction, and other work attitudes. This justifies proactive efforts to plan for change management effectiveness in most organizational interventions, particularly in IT initiatives that traditionally tend to turn the organization into which they are introduced upside-down.

Download PDF: The Integration of a Change Management Approach with IT Implementations Should Not Be an Afterthought or Add-on

Leading the Way: Transforming the Information & Information Technology Organization of the Ontario Public Service

Learn about an innovative change management initiative to bring e-government to Ontario. The case study details how the OPS built organizational capacity and engaged stakeholders and employees; as well as key factors for successful change.

Download PDF: Leading the Way: Transforming the Information & Information Technology Organization of the Ontario Public Service

A Tale of Two Future Searches: A Methodology for Large Group Change Planning

One of the most frequently asked questions in change management is how can we  build genuine and inclusive support for change within our organization, and do  it quickly? One answer to the dilemma of time versus wide participation is to  use a large group whole systems change process. In this article, the author  examines one of the whole systems processes, Future Search, and presents two  case studies of its application in two very different change management  scenarios: a regional economic development story from Canada and the creation  of a national suicide prevention policy in Ireland.

Download PDF: A Tale of Two Future Searches: A Methodology for Large Group Change Planning

What’s to Love About Employee Ownership?

Unions often feel uneasy about employee ownership, Dr. Beatty says. But in these cases drawn from her research, they learned to love it, embracing it as a potent strategy for saving jobs, keeping plants open, and building better union-management relationships.

Surprising fact: in 2002, unionized workers made up a larger percentage of U.S. employees holding stock options than non-union workers (General Social Survey for 2002 – Rutgers University).

Surprising fact: U.K. workplaces with employee share ownership have much higher union membership than those without it.

Numerous carefully controlled studies have shown that companies with significant employee ownership grow faster, by about three percent annually. Furthermore, faster growth of eight percent to 11 percent was experienced by companies implementing employee ownership (EO) “well” (Beyster Institute website). For example, UPS, called “the tightest ship in the shipping business,” is majority owned by its 300,000 unionized employees.

So why aren’t unions jumping on EO? It seems that unions become enthusiastic about it only when it provides a way of saving jobs during looming crises. Some union leaders have become suspicious because the term “ESOP” has become associated with union busting during high-profile failures such as United Airlines. Others have a philosophical reluctance to participate in corporate decision-making because of their duty of fair representation. Also, some unionists view minority representation on corporate boards as a waste of time.

But my case studies of five unionized Canadian plants that adopted EO during a threatened closure might convince them otherwise. Two of the five, Great Western Brewery and Algoma Steel, survived as independent entities; and two others, Spruce Falls and Provincial Papers, were turned around and sold to larger companies. EO proved a potent strategy in the union’s struggle to save jobs and keep the plants open.

If we are interested in relationship improvements as well, the contrast between Provincial Papers and Algoma is very instructive. At both, the union-management relationship had long been difficult. But Algoma’s union got behind employee ownership took control of much of the buyout process and co-operated with the company to preserve jobs and union membership.

A key element of the union plan was the framework for governance. It helped the parties anticipate and resolve many future difficulties before they became severe. It also provided a statement of values that the new company had to live by – values which the union strongly endorsed.

After the buyout, union and management officers addressed gatherings of staff together, symbolizing the new way of running the company. Joint committees at all levels were put in place, and much effort went into gaining employee input into decisions. None of this co-operation prevented the difficult decisions to cut wages and jobs at Algoma, and both of the parties had to share in the pain. However, this pain did not poison the new relationship.

At Provincial Papers, by contrast, the unions did not take charge of the process. Management seemed reluctant to share power with the new employee owners, and so union officers felt they had to battle for information and influence. Whereas employee reps on the Algoma board of directors were able to make an important contribution, at Provincial Papers they were not effective. Despite having studied the successful Spruce Falls buyout, Provincial Papers seemed unable to understand or implement any of the joint structures, participative initiatives or a philosophy congruent with employee ownership. They held onto their old adversarial attitudes and beliefs. So it was a blessing when a large firm purchased the company and reinstated a traditional management hierarchy.

When a unionized company is in crisis, employee ownership can help it survive. But beyond survival, the following factors can raise the probability of sustained success and a better relationship:

  • New senior leaders should have expertise in the industry and experience with employee ownership;
  • Employees should make an actual investment in the stock, even if it is not large – and even if wage and benefit concessions are also necessary;
  • Management must work with the union and help the union leaders look good;
  • Implement the turnaround strategy quickly;
  • Work to create and maintain good employee relations;
  • Make a commitment to employee ownership as a philosophy;
  • Encourage employee involvement and participation.

As Canadian unions and companies become more experienced with employee ownership, they will learn how it can create many win-wins for both union and management – beyond saving jobs during a crisis.

The Magic of Diagnosis – Part 2

In part one, Brenda discussed how diagnosis enables change leaders to uncover what is really going on – and how that knowledge yields both the best solutions and the energy for change. In part two of her article, she elaborates on how diagnosis actually works to mobilize change, and how to make an accurate diagnosis.

To read Part 1 of this article click here

I’ve emphasized the importance of staying in the deep diagnosis phase in order to mobilize change. But how does this actually work? A useful formula for explaining how energy arises out of engagement and learning is the formula DxVxF>R, offered by Kathy Dannemiller and colleagues. It is built on the notion that resistance is a normal and natural human response to change and that to move forward, people must have a deep appreciation for the why, what, and how of the change – or D,V and F – which they describe as follows:

“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 behaviour will change as a result.”

What is the best way to create DxVxF? There is no substitute for engaging people in critical conversations with colleagues, customers, suppliers and experts to explore and identify the many reasons for change, the desired possibilities for the future and the paths to getting there. Building a critical mass of support through DxVxF creates leverage. It is a strategy that enables change agents to join with people, to make them all smart about why change, to what and how.

One of most compelling insights I’ve had is that if you spend time creating D and V, you will create the spark for working at warp speed when you reach F – or implementation. That’s because you’ll have a group of people who know what to do, as they have knowledge embedded in their DNA. The magic of taking your time at the front end is that the back end will then roll forward quickly. That’s why a brilliant diagnosis made by a select few may be a waste of time if it does not resonate with the people who need to make it happen. In many ways, change is all about learning, and doing the diagnosis is a critical step. You need to think carefully about who needs to be engaged in real learning for the change to succeed.

The simple truth is that when we have the courage to embrace the big questions, and stay in a place of uncertainty and confusion, we are creating the basis for sound decisions and speedy implementation. All team members, including change leaders, need to move through these stages, passing through denial and confusion and working through the uncertainty to eventually reach renewal, where the wind is once again under their wings.

The Magic of Diagnosis – Part 1

At its core, facilitating organizational change is about energizing the right people to design and execute smart strategies. As sociologist Philip Selznik says: “Strategies take on value only as committed people infuse them with energy.” Read on for part one of an article that details how diagnosis lights that flame.

A few years ago, under the direction of a new plant manager, the HR manager of a huge Canadian company approached us to complete a whole systems operational assessment and develop a set of recommendations for improvement. We advised an alternative approach, suggesting that I would facilitate the work of a steering team who would guide this critical work and create the action plan. While the HR manager was intrigued with the approach, she declined, saying she had no time, that the new plant manager wanted the recommendations yesterday. Sound familiar?

We gave her the names of several consulting firms and the assessment was duly completed. Two years later she called us back and informed us that thousands of dollars later and with the consulting report in their hands, none of the recommendations had been implemented. I asked why, and her answer confirmed a deep truth about enabling change; in essence she said that because the senior managers and critical others were not involved with the diagnosis, they did not support or agree with their commendations. They had a strategy with no resources committed to making it happen.

We think experts are a very valuable source of information and encourage change teams to hear from different experts to educate, inform, and stretch their thinking. But what’s important is that they integrate information with their own. No outside expert can possibly know what is right for an organization.

Why do we as change leaders always want to jump past diagnosis and move right into strategy? Could it be that, as leaders, we are squeamishly uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity? We need to rush to action, any action, because action means leadership? Or is that we simply do not appreciate that change is about learning, and if the right people are not involved in a discovery process that enables them to learn together, they will not be ready to facilitate collective actions?

Rushing into action has two main downsides. One is the high likelihood of an exercise in futility, just like the example described above. If we get our diagnosis wrong, by default our plan will solve the wrong issue. Let’s say for example, that the problem your team is confronting is that your organization’s strategy is not being operationalized. You might jump to the conclusion that your leaders are the problem; they aren’t competent enough to do what it takes. But when you make assumptions like this, you are likely to find yourself having déjà vu: no matter how often you coach or replace the offenders, the problem will recur again and again if you’re addressing the wrong cause.

The other problem with plunging reactively into action is that it shuts things down before the creativity that is in the system can be revealed. This may seem counterintuitive but by spending time in understanding the why behind issues, the what and how become much clearer. Quite simply, the more you diagnose and expand your perception of what is, the more you expand the possibilities for action.

Take the case of a team we worked with that was in the exploratory, diagnostic stage of an organizational design effort. The steering team members couldn’t stand the uncertainty of not knowing the answer, and felt the need to create something. So they sat down one evening and designed their organization based on what they knew so far.

Months later, we compared their early attempt to the one created after a proper diagnosis. It was very instructive. The first exercise yielded something along the lines of what had existed and wasn’t working. The next iteration, however, was a total departure from the traditional hierarchical structure, based on networks and relationships – just what the organization needed.

This is a perfect illustration of our need to hold on tight to structures and answers and get there quickly – and of how this limit sour ability to allow creative solutions to arise from a deep sense of purpose.

In contrast, taking time in the diagnosis phase lets you uncover what is going on – and that knowledge yields both the best solutions, and just as important, the energy for change. Deep diagnosis ensures that people will be committed to solving big issues and doing whatever it takes to make change happen. Having a solid appreciation and understanding of what is naturally enables people to make good decisions about what can be.

To read Part 2 of this article click here

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Learn more about the collection, use and disclosure of personal information at Queen’s University.