Large Group Intervention

Bunker and Alban (1997) discuss four dynamics of large groups that can occur that practitioners need to pay special attention to, they are: 1. The dilemma of voice (amount of individual airtime and the feeling of being heard) occurs primarily because in large groups people may feel like they have not had a real opportunity to speak or be heard. Because of this, people may feel marginalized and further withdraw from the group, even when they do have the opportunity to speak they don’t take advantage of it.

Bunker and Alban also noted that the dilemma of voice possibly results in what has been described as diffusion of responsibility. Diffusion of responsibility is a phenomenon that asserts that as the number of people in a group increases, their individual sense of individual responsibility for the success of the group decreases and this impacts their behavior.

2. The dilemma of structure (amount needed to manage anxiety in the room and active individual participation) can occur when there is either too much or not enough structure. Paradoxically, they state that if not enough structure is present in a situation that needs more structure, it is feared that anxiety will increase and people may act out. Alternately, if too much structure is present in situations that don’t need it, it is also feared that anxiety will increase and people may act out.

The dilemma is not knowing how much anxiety is present in a group and how much structure is needed to manage it. 3. The egocentric dilemma (each person acting as though his or her reality is the only true reality) occurs because individuals oftentimes view their worlds through their own limited experiences and filters. When people experience this dilemma they fail to view differences as potentially productive that could lead to more healthy and vital outcomes.

4. Affect contagion (experiencing and expressing feelings because one feels them vicariously in others). Positive or negative affect always has the possibility to spread in a large group setting. Contagion occurs when people who had differing experiences are fused with the same emotions. Turquet (1975, p. 375) describes the contagion effect as a condition of oneness where “members seek to join in a powerful union with an omnipotent force, unobtainably high, to surrender self for passive participation, and thereby feel existence, well-being, and wholeness.

In response to the dynamics created by these dilemmas, LGIs manage these considerations by: a) using many small group processes to stimulate and encourage involvement and participation; b) using principles of self-management and democratic methods to take responsibility for task outcomes; c) maximizing opportunities for individual choice making through voting and other individual selection methods; d) use of large group report out to create share understanding and group learning; e) considering the right amount of structure to contain anxiety and maximize productiveness; and f) encouraging diversity, holistic thinking, and collaboration through group member selection.

The primary practitioners of the most popular variations of large group interventions include: 1) Search Conference: The Search Conference, originally developed by Fred Emery and Eric Trist in the early 1960s, is a highly participative and democratic planning process that empowers organizations to identify, design, and enact its most desired future (Emery and Purser, 1996). Merrelyn Emery (1993), who is on the faculty of the Australian National University in Canberra, co-developed the methodology with her late husband over the last 30 years, and has conducted Search Conferences all over the world. In these events, people create strategic goals and action plans that develop the organization or system.

A guiding principle of the Search Conference process is the chance for organization members to begin taking more responsibility and control of their circumstance. Unique to the Search Conference methodology is that it usually only involves 20-35 people, does not involve external stakeholders, and focuses a large amount of time on action planning (roughly one-third of the time).

2) Future-Search Conferences: The goal in these meetings is to help the organization find an ideal future and aim for it. The event is typically scheduled for 16 hours over three days, and the ideal size is 64 people (eight tables with eight participants at each). Marvin Weisbord (1992) and Sandra Janoff , partners in the consulting firm Future Search Associates in Philadelphia, are the recognized experts in this method. 2) The Search Conference (Emery and Purser, 1996) invented by Eric Trist and Fred Emery (1960). 3) Conference Model:

This comprehensive system involves up to four separate two- or three-day events. It is used to accomplish a top-to-bottom redesign of an organization and includes a customer/supplier conference, a vision conference (sometimes using future-search methodology), a technical conference, and a design conference. Richard Axelrod (2000; 1992), a partner in the Axelrod Group Inc., a consulting firm in Wilmette, IL, created this system. The method can be reconfigured to fit the needs of an organization; 4) Large-Scale Interactive Process: The late Kathleen Dannemiller (1992), formerly president emeritus of Dannemiller Tyson Associates, a consulting firm in Ann Arbor, MI, used this method to implement organization-wide changes.

This intervention, like many others, involves mix-and-match table groups of eight to 10 people and usually lasts three days. Dannemiller recommended using it with groups of up to 600 participants, although she had used it with much larger groups; 5) Real-Time Strategic Change: This approach grew out of Dannemiller's work in large-group interventions and is likewise used to implement organization-wide change. It was developed by Robert Jacobs, a partner with Five Oceans Consulting in Ann Arbor, MI, and author of the book Real Time Strategic Change (1994), who worked with Dannemiller's firm for many years.

The event follows a similar course as the Dannemiller intervention, but Jacob stresses that this is an approach to work, rather than just an event. The event, he says, is just the beginning of a process that changes the way an organization works; 6) Open-Space Meetings: This is the least structured event. Its creator, Harrison Owen (2000; 1995; 1992), president of H. H. Owen and Co., a consulting company in Potomac, MD, calls it a technique for holding better meetings, not just large-group events.

The group gathers, a blank page on the wall constitutes the agenda, and participants are encouraged to sponsor their own discussions by writing the title of their session on one of the many flip charts in the room. People then gravitate to the topic of their choice. The strengths of this method lie in the safety and openness of the space created for the discussion, says its creator. The weakness of Open Space is when someone tries to control the meeting or take it to a predetermined outcome; 7) Appreciative Inquiry:

This approach focuses attention on expanding an organization’s capacity for positive change through inquiry into its positive core (strengths, gifts, and life-giving forces). David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, cofounders of the Taos Institute, where Appreciative Inquiry is taught to consultants and leaders of change, are the most prolific practitioners of the methodology. Unique about this method is its unconditional focus on the positive and possibility oriented discourse as compared to traditional problem-oriented and deficit based approaches to change. (add AI summit bit here). Methodological Differences across LGIs

Although most large group methods possess a common set of fundamental beliefs and values, they do vary on core dimensions such as amount of structure, facilitator’s role, purpose of session, optimal number of participants, length of intervention, number of sessions, and use of outside speakers (Bunker and Alban, 1997). One of the more visible differences is the amount of structure that is used. For example, Miller (1994) states that large-scale interactive processes involve a lot of pre-planning work upfront. This includes determining everything from deciding which stakeholder groups need to be represented and specifically who should attend, topic selection, the issues to be dealt with, room arrangements and seating, and detailed agendas and task planning. The conference model, a large-scale intervention created by Richard and Emily Axelrod (2000; 1992) is one of the most structured of all the LGIs.

The conference model, used to completely redesign an organization, is composed of four consecutive large-scale conferences lasting from two to three days separated by a month between each conference. The first conference is used to create a vision of the organization’s preferred future and is similar to Future Search. The second conference is the customer/supplier conference, which allows the organization to hear from it most important stakeholders and examine the external forces that will shape the organization’s future direction.

The third conference is a technical conference, which focuses on the organization’s core processes that are used to create and deliver essential products or services. The final conference is the design conference, which is used to design the new organization, including detailed action planning to support the new structure. Each conference has a detailed agenda, group exercises, scheduled presentations, and discussion time for table groups. In some cases, there is a fifth implementation conference. The months between each successive conference are used to communicate results and gain further input, these sessions are called “walkthroughs.”

In comparison to the more highly structured large group interventions, Open-Space Technology (OST) lies on the opposite end of the structure continuum. OST, invented by Harrison Owen (2000; 1995; 1992) has no up-front planning, no specific exercises, no defined agenda (just a topic to mobilize around), no tables, and few rules. Owens argues that organizations tend to be too rigid and over controlling. In open-space meetings, the large group is gathered in a room with people seated in a circle. OST operates on the assumption that effective dialogue occurs best when it is convened by people who have a stated interest in it. These same people if given an opportunity or space for dialogue about a topic or issue, are the most likely people to improve it.

Therefore, anyone who wants to convene a discussion that relates to the general topic can do so by writing the subject on a flip chart and gathering with others who are also interested in it. In OST there are two guiding precepts: the one law and the four principles. The one law, is the law of two feet, says that if during the course of the gathering, any person who finds him or herself in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their two feet and go to a more productive place. It is otherwise know as the law of mobility. The law of two feet is liberating and places the responsibility for learning and contribution squarely on the shoulders of the participant. The four principles are: Whoever comes is the right person;

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have; Whenever it starts is the right time; When it's over, it's over (corollary is when it’s not over, it’s not over). OST leverages the informal (flexible, adaptive) structure that exists in every organization and recognizes that employees will often times get things done by skirting the formal (rigid, inflexible) structure rather than following established policies and procedures that are cumbersome and limit their productivity and effectiveness. During open space, structure emerges concurrently as the event proceeds. Rather than being dictated by external forces, it emanates from the adaptive self-organizing and relational processes that participants embrace when the right type of space is created.

Purpose is another key variant of LGIs. Bunker and Alban noted this difference when they divided LGIs into three categories: · Large scale systems methods for creating the future; · Large scale systems methods for work redesign, and · Large scale systems methods for discussion and decision-making. For example, The Conference Model, Fast Cycle Full Participation Work Design, Real Time Work Design, and Participative Design are large scale methods used to engage large numbers of people in redesigning any aspect of a company's operations.

The Search Conference, Future-Search, Real Time Strategic Change, and the ICA – TOP are methods used to help organization stakeholders create shared future vision and strategic-action plans. Alternatively, Simu-Real, Preferred Futuring, Open Space, and Appreciative Inquiry are adaptable and flexible methods used her methods to promote transformative dialogue to design new organizations and processes, resolve complex and problematic issues, and foster participative decision-making.

Some of these approaches also have limits on how many people can or should participate; other approaches may involve thousands of people in a single event (Filipczak, 1995) Generally, LGIs focus on relevant and systemic system-wide issues that impact multiple constituencies throughout the organization, therefore a lot of work is done before, during, and after the event to ensure its success and institutionalization of the change. According to Bunker and Alban, selecting the right issue has to be important enough so that a critical mass of people has information to share on the subject as well as a strong desire to influence.

They recommend taking your most important business issue and making it the focus of the event. Doing so brings relevance and context to the situation – meaning there is a good reason why people are there. They also stress that if the corporate culture is not participative, and likely never will be, a large group intervention will probably fail.