Organisation Development

by Rosie Stevens

Large Group Interventions

Large Group Interventions (LGIs) are technologies that have been used extensively throughout the world since the 1980s. Their development was rooted in a range of theories and approaches, including Kurt Lewin and Gestalt psychology, Systems Theory, Open Systems and Power and Systems Labs and the work on socio-technical systems of Bion and, later, Emery and Trist. In the 1970s, this work was further shaped by Beckard, Lippitt and Merrelyn Emery, who developed the Search Conference. Marvin Weisbord developed this further in the 1980s through his work on ‘getting the whole system into the room’.

Traditional approaches

Traditional approaches to change tend to be

  • Top-down and therefore often misunderstood or resisted by people lower down in the organisation
  • Led by a selected working or project group, representative of the workforce. This approach often starts off well, but over time the representatives become distanced and isolated from their colleagues as they gather enthusiasm for their work and are privy to much more information than their colleagues back in the workplace
  • Bottom-up, where individual teams of employees are accountable for making changes in the way they themselves do business. While this generates enthusiasm and empowerment, teams using this approach largely end up working independently of each other and do not necessarily develop in line with corporate goals and objectives
  • Pilot strategies, identifying a specific part of the organisation as the flagship or leader for change. They have a well-defined task and the support of the organisation’s leaders, and are thus often given the necessary (and sometimes excessive) resources to ensure success. Ultimately, however, it can be difficult, for many legitimate reasons, to replicate their good results throughout an organisation and the ‘not invented here’ syndrome can become prevalent when rollout is attempted throughout the rest of the organisation.

The LGI approach

The difference between the above and any of the Large Group Interventions is this: there are some fundamental principles and advantages behind all LGI approaches that need to be incorporated into the design and worked with consciously throughout the intervention. These principles are many, but the key ones are outlined below.

  • Get as much of the whole system into the room as possible – in the case of a team, the group would include all members, plus the team’s senior managers and could, depending on the theme, also include key stakeholders and customers, internally and sometimes externally.
  • There is an understanding and belief that if people are given all the information they need, they are able to be innovative and creative; contributing good and workable ideas at the initial stages, they will work better and more collaboratively together and will be able to contribute significantly to the vision and strategic direction of the organisation or team. They will also feel much more empowered and are likely to perform much more effectively.
  • There is a range of different perspectives within any team or organisation and, depending where people are, both in terms of their level/grade in the organisation and in terms of their functional role, really listening to and taking account of as wide a range of perspectives as possible is most likely to ensure that the change is a success.
  • Getting everyone involved, even if it initially takes more time to plan and conduct change, is more efficient than trying to implement change quickly using a small planning group. This is because when everyone has been involved in a large group method, the implementation happens much more immediately and positively. One major advantage is that it is not necessary to tell, re-sell or force the change, because everyone has been involved.
  • The people who are closest to the problem or issues being discussed often have the critical information that will significantly enrich the strategy and plans for implementation and delivery.
  • The diversity that comprises the whole system often creates a synergy that leads to a more innovative and creative change and future way of working. It harnesses people’s talents, contributions and enthusiasm.

The range and purpose of Large Group Interventions

There is now a comprehensive range of LGI’s, each coming with its particular methodologies and processes. The main Large Group Interventions are listed here, with a brief summary of the purpose, methodology and optimum size of each, where applicable. It is possible, using some LGI’s, to work highly effectively with thousands of people together all at once and there have been some stunning outcomes, that many people would not have thought possible, from many of these events throughout the world. A more detailed explanation, by way of examples, is given for Open space, which is the least structured of all Large Group Interventions and Real time strategic change, which is one of the more structured.

There is a separate page on Appreciative Inquiry, which is not technically classed as one of the original Large Group Interventions, but which is a very different approach to change and OD that has fast been gaining popularity and credibility over the last few years.

If you want to run any type of Large Group Intervention, you will need to appoint a consultant who has been specially trained to use it, as it is critical to their success that the facilitator(s) not only thoroughly understand the design and methodologies, but also understand how to apply the fundamental principles by which they work.

Several of them require certification through the developers/designers of that particular LGI. For example, you could not run an event around the Conference Model unless you had completed the appropriate training and been fully certified.