Large Group Meetings

The following are brief descriptions of 11 of our favorite variations on the theme of large group intervention events:

A strategic conference based on discovering common ground and imagining ideal futures.  It is a highly participative and democratic planning process that empowers organizations to identify, design, and enact its most desired future.  Search conferences have been conducted in many cultures all over the world.  The goal is to help the organization find an ideal future and aim for it.  The meeting takes 16 hours over three days with two nights as an essential part of the process.  First step is for participants to focus on the past.  Then, mind mapping is used to picture everything that plays a role in the present, looking for trends and patterns.  Next, they describe ideal future scenarios and share them with the group.  Common ground is identified, and action plans are devised to reach a desirable future (Weisbord, 1992; Weisbord & Janoff, 2000, 2005).  Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff are the recognized experts in this method.
A participative model that engages people in a system-wide change through a series of integrated conferences and mini-conferences comprising meetings of the organization’s stakeholders and employees at all levels.  The model involves up to four separate two or three-day events. Applications include redesigning processes and organizations, developing new cultures, creating team-based organizations, creating organizational futures, and integrating processes and organizational units.  Richard Axelrod (1992, 2000) created this system. The basic ideas include: 1) people support what they help to create; 2) when people understand the system they feel empowered to make changes; and 3) a large group conference is not enough, mini conferences or “walk-thrus” widen the circle of involvement. The method can be reconfigured to meet the needs of the organization (Bunker & Alban, 1997).
Created by Owen (1992), OST is the most unstructured of all the large group interventions.  The method involves the creation of self-managed meetings that generate high levels of ownership.  The process generates ideas, explores and plans new possibilities for action.  It is often used to resolve complex or conflict-ridden issues in a short period of time.  According to its originator, “Open Space Technology is effective in situations where a diverse group of people must deal with complex and potentially conflicting material in innovative and productive ways” (Owens, 2008 p. 15).  Based on four principles: 1) whoever comes are the right people; 2) whatever happens is the only thing that could have; 3) whenever it starts is the right time; 4) when it’s over it’s over (Bunker & Alban, 1997; Holman et al., 2007; Jacobs, 1997; Owens, 2008).
A method that uses simulation to help an organization become more visible to itself. The process enabled key members of organizations to work together on tasks and issues while at the same time helping them to become aware of and skilled in dealing with organizational dynamics. Consisting of action periods, where people act their organizational role, followed by analysis sessions.  The method is used to help client systems explore differences, solve complex problems, work or redesign, determine goals and priorities, and engage in future planning (Bunker & Alban, 1997; Holman et al., 2007; Klien, 1992).
A change process originated at GE in the late 1980’s to bring together large groups of people to eliminate bureaucracy, improve critical processes, and strengthen customer relationships.  It is a method for engaging employees across levels and functions in a rapid effort to get results, while also transforming the organizations culture (Bunker & Alban, 1997; Holman et al., 2007).
In Real Time Work Design (RTWD), a research and design team is created as the guiding mechanism for each project.  The team includes representation from all levels of the workforce and works closely with external consultants. Three conferences are held:  The Launch Conference includes all staff; the Process Conference gives a critical mass of stakeholders in the production or service process to assess how work is done over a two-day meeting; the whole system comes together again in the Implementation Conference to hear an update and participate in the planning of the implementation (Bunker & Alban, 1997).
A participative planning method that searches for common ground in strategic planning.  Originally developed by Fred Emery and Eric Trist in the early-1960s, the process enables communities, institutions, and organizations to identify, plan, and implement their most desired future (Bunker & Alban, 1997).  The objective is to be proactive toward environmental change.  Therefore, environmental scanning is a critical part of the process.  This is accomplished by surfacing the organization’s past through the group’s collective memory.  Significant organizational changes in the past five to seven years are recorded on flip charts.  With parity of voice the total community brainstorms characteristics in the current system that should be dropped or created to improve the system.  Small groups work in parallel on key elements of the organization’s future system. The groups then reports out and all data is integrated.  People select the strategies they would like to work on and form self-managing teams to develop action plans.  Finally, commitments are made to maintain the self-managing structure (Bunker & Alban, 1992; Holman et al., 2007).
This method creates a preferred future with system-wide action planning involving an entire organization in fast and far-reaching change.  The process creates buy-in, commitment to, and ownership of the change effort.  Broad, whole picture views are used to form the basis of information everyone accesses to plan and implement changes. Jacobs (1997) uses the term “real time” to refer to simultaneous planning and implementation of individual, group, and organization-wide changes. The term also emphasizes the importance of current reality as a main driver throughout the process.  Jacobs evokes complexity when he advocates a whole systems approach to systemic problems through the organizations interconnections:  “real current issues and all their accompanying messy interconnections are the basis of the work” (p. 21).   The approach grew out of Kathleen Dannemiller’s work in large group interventions (Bunker & Alban, 1997; Holman et al., 2007; Jacobs, 1997).
The summit is an application of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) that has evolved through the collaboration of people taking the best of large-group process and integrating AI.  Recognized experts David Cooperrider and Dianne Whitney, are prolific practitioners of this methodology.  The approach focuses attention on expanding an organization’s capacity for positive change through inquiry into its positive core (strengths, gifts and life-giving forces).  It involves the practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.  The summit is an application and theory of “whole-system, strength based inquiry.” The method is designed to progress through the Appreciative Inquiry 4-D process of Discovery, Dream, Design, and Destiny.  The participants’ list is by design diverse and inclusive of all the organization’s stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers, and community members (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2000; Holman et al., 2007).
From the Institute of Cultural Affairs (headquartered in Chicago), The ICA Strategic Planning Process allows people to categorize, prioritize, and organize their own data, so everyone is involved.  The methodology is a whole-systems approach that includes all stakeholders. This large group intervention is conducted over a period of five to seven days with the actual time depending on the groups needs. The participants stay with the material over a period of time, forcing them to look deeper and avoiding the “quick fix” mentality. The group experiences several days of intensive visioning, searching for contradictions, and offering solutions.  Participants begin to see possibilities and to take responsibility or ownership for the outcome of the process (Bunker & Alban, 1997).
The World Café: Based on conversational process, the World Café is a simple methodology that can evoke and make visible the collective intelligence of any group, increasing people’s capacity for effective action in pursuit of common aims.  As a living network pattern the methodology provides a lived experience of participating in a dynamic network of conversations that continually coevolve as questions that matter with family, friends, colleagues, and community are explored.  In a World Café conversation four or five participants gather at one table to discuss ideas around a topic for 20 to 30 minutes.  When the time is up they are invited to change tables carrying with them their key ideas.  One person is designated to remain at the table to share ideas from the previous group(s).  After three or more rounds the group comes together to “harvest” the dialogue in an all group report-out session (Holman et al., 2007; Brown & Issacs, 2005; Brown; Tan & Brown, 2005).

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