Large group interventions: theory and practice

On Thursday 7 June, I opened an email that read ‘Every year Tricordant sponsors a student to help further the theory and practice of organisation design. This year’s student is conducting a study to understand what the gap is between theory and practice in using Large Group Interventions (LGIs) to enable a successful organisation redesign.  Could he interview you on this?’

It happened that on Saturday 9 June I was participating in the Edinburgh Moonwalk.   As I was pondering LGIs I realised the Moonwalk is an LGI.  It has the six critical distinguishing attributes

  1. It is a collaborative, large scale, inquiry.  On a Moonwalk thousands of people are engaged in finding out if, collectively, they ‘can save lives, raise awareness and get fit’,
  2. It is creating alignment around strategic direction and system wide issues: in this case raising money to support ‘research into breast cancer for the future health of us all, to help improve the lives of those who have cancer now, and for prevention’.
  3. It is demonstrating the imperative for inclusiveness and widespread participation in the change process: for the Moonwalkers it means following a well-planned and orchestrated programme of walking training, fundraising, and spreading the word.  ‘With just a little commitment, a big helping of enthusiasm and a spoonful of energy everybody can take on The MoonWalk!’ (Note these are the attributes for employee engagementmoonshots or moonwalks – what’s the difference?)
  4. It provides a means to put systems thinking into practice and to be part of a larger more holistic strategy for change. ‘Walk the Walk is the largest grant making breast cancer charity in the UK. … We grant the funds to other charities and organisations throughout the UK, to help them reach our united goals and ambitions of treating breast cancer.’
  5. It is a large group. ‘Groups are defined as large groups when it becomes impossible for each group member to maintain eye-to eye contact. Large group dynamics begin once a group exceeds 15 to 20 participants.’  The Moonwalk has thousands of participants, they couldn’t all make eye contact with each other and they are probably avoiding it anyway, as they are ‘feeling a mixture of fear and excitement as you contemplate the hours ahead. Yes, it will be tough’.  (I could use that sentence for the next LGI I facilitate).
  6. It is a time-bound event. ‘Sign up now for our night walk and join the cast… get ready for this one night only sensational Walk the Walk’.   One difference from most organisational LGIs where participants mill around in a hotel ballroom dressed in ‘business casual’, or sometimes, ‘smart business casual’, the moonwalk LGI requires participants to walk through the night dressed in a Hollywood themed decorated bra and bum-bag.   ‘You’ve done the training, you’re feeling fit… it’s time to decorate your bra’.  (There are lots of instructions on how to do this.  I kept it simple. My contribution to our team’s decoration was my knitting six anemones.  In other LGIs I participate in it is usually a bundle of Sharpies and packets of BluTack and post notes.)

A quick glance at the Moonwalk Event Guide indicates that its highly structured design is akin to that of Axelrod’s conference model, an LGI that ‘involves internal and external stakeholders in a series of integrated conferences and walkthrus, each conference lasting from two to three days separated by a month between each conference.  The walkthrus that alternate with the conferences communicate results and gain further input.’ Each conference has a detailed agenda, group exercises, scheduled presentations, and discussion time for table groups.

Anyone walking a full series of Moonwalks and following the programme would feel at home in the Axelrod Conference Model.  At the other end of the LGI spectrum is the Open Space Technology approach. Michael Arena notes that, ‘Open Space principles and framework are quite simplistic. There is one rule and four principles.’ The one rule is the “law of two feet.”  As far as the Moonwalk goes that’s an ideal rule. And, on reflection, I find I’ve also adhered to the four principles in the 12-week run up to the event itself.

Rather than follow the training plan I can rest confident that “whatever happens is the only thing that could have”, so not training at all because other stuff intervened is probably ok.  However, I did go for a walk on the Thursday before, so clearly I was  following the principle ‘whenever it starts is the right time’, and when I got there and met the rest of my team and anyone else we happened to meet I ticked off compliance with the third principle  “whoever comes are the right people”, walking through the huge pink Moonwalk finish arch is the fourth principle in action – ‘when it’s over it’s over’.

LGIs design and delivery are clearly based in systems theory,  but do they work in practice?   I took a look at the Walk the Walk’s annual report and accounts. (They organise the Moonwalks) which says that Walk the Walk aims to operate within 25% of the donations it receives, leaving 75% available for grants, and that 2016 this was not possible for a number of reasons.  Nevertheless in 2016 the group’s total income was 9.8 million GBP, of which total expenditure on charitable activity (including grants made) was 5.1 million.  Income was slightly up compared with 2015 and charitable activity slightly down.   However, I’m not sure that measuring LGI success on the amount of money raised is sufficient indicator of working in practice.

On the Moonwalk, there is a ripple awareness-raising effect from the publicity, the growing supportive network of someone who knows someone walking in memory of a friend or family, the participation in an event that generates good-will and a ‘feel-good’ flavour – none which are easily measurable in terms of answering the question ‘do LGIs work in practice?’

LGI models could be measured and evaluated from many perspectives and I haven’t seen any evaluative framework for them.  (Have you?)

Whether they work in practice depends on the reasons for choosing and using one in the first place.  There are many types of LGI – the student I mentioned in in my first paragraph lists:  The Conference Model, Real Time Work Design, Whole-Scale Organization Design, Fast Cycle Full Participation Work Design, Participative Design, The Search Conference, Future Search, Real Time Strategic Change, ICA Strategic Planning Process, Open Space Technology, Work-Out, Simu-Real.

LGIs have been in use over a good period of time.  Barbara Benedict Bunker’s first book of them appeared in 1999.  This variety of type and their longevity might be an indicator that they work in practice ‘in numerous organizational change efforts across a variety of applications, such as organization development, organization redesign, restructuring, strategic planning, visioning, values and principles clarification, process improvement, customer/supplier relations, global learning and development, and formation of collaborative alliances.’

What’s your view of the theory and practice of LGIs?  Let me know.

PS:  On Sunday 10 June.  Our team of 3 successfully completed the 26.2 miles of the marathon, raised around 1500 GBP, spread awareness of cancer treatment and prevention in their communities, gained proficiency in knitting flowers, and felt an all-round sense of purpose achieved.