System Transformation With Large Groups

Large group interactive events have emerged in response to the need for organizations and communities to adapt more rapidly to changes in their environment. What sets this approach apart from other change strategies are the large numbers of people implementing strategic change in “real-time”. The more comprehensive models involve 1500 or more people from all parts of the system working in small groups to:

  •     Assess the organization, or community’s present situation,
  •     Agree on future directions,
  •     Create commitments and action plans to implement their agreed strategy.

The idea of such large numbers of people working together productively is a relatively new phenomenon. Fifteen years ago working with 60 people seemed the upper limit of what was possible. Today 3-day events with 1500 people are common. How can such large meetings be productive and where are they used?

Large group interactive meetings are credited with transforming hundreds of communities and organizations, including industry, education, government, health care, communities and not-for-profits. Examples include Ford Motor Company, Boeing, Marriott Corporation, Meade School District, American Forest Conference, Multnomah County Community Justice and Amalgamated Bank of South Africa.

Two essential design elements underpin the usefulness of this approach. The first is the use of small groups as the primary organizing structure within the large group. By design, each small group is a microcosm of the community. The small group fosters inclusion, trust and collaboration. Working within a large group of 1500 or more, small groups allow individuals to acquire both a personal and a global understanding of their situation and the means to change it. The second essential design element is how the planning is done. A cross-section of people representing the full spectrum of opinions plans the event. They decide the purpose and goals of the meeting. They surface the critical issues and the information needed to create a full picture of the present situation. They ensure relevancy and communication with the larger community. When the issues are complex or divisive, this planning process can take several months.

The large group interactive event is a powerful tool for rapid positive change. It allows a large number of people to simultaneously understand their situation, agree on a new strategic direction and begin its implementation.

The usual outcome of a large group interactive meeting is a high degree of synergy and collaboration that accelerates the implementation of desirable changes. Business organizations get results quickly–from improved customer relationships to better quality products and services. The highly interactive group processes allow communities to develop common vision and joint action even in the face of widely divergent viewpoints.

© Robert E. McCarthy