Leith’s Guide to Large Group Intervention Methods 2
How to use large group intervention methods and collaborative gatherings to address complex strategic issues | Written and published by Martin Leith

Organisational change programmes are typically designed to:

  • Change the way people behave at work in order to improve performance.
  • Implement a bold new strategy for turning the corporate vision into reality.
  • Rethink corporate structure and redesign jobs.
  • Integrate merged or acquired companies.
  • Re-engineer business processes.
  • Implement new IT systems.
  • Institutionalise philosophies such as total quality and customer satisfaction.
  • Increase the speed at which new products are developed and brought to market.

Even though most change programmes are carefully planned – often with the help of experienced consultants – between 70% and 90% of them fail to achieve the desired results. Why is the failure rate so high?

The conventional approach to change has ten structural weaknesses

–1 Top management clings to the old model of leadership.
Senior managers continue to provide leadership in the form of solutions, instead of working to improve the organisation’s
capacity to adapt. This improved adaptability can only be achieved if the leaders change themselves before seeking to change the rest of the organisation.

–2 Change is imposed and driven by senior management.
By and large the planners of the change programme (typically senior management assisted by consultants) have the best of
intentions when they insist that people implement their plan without modification. The implementers, on the other hand,
usually want to adapt the plan to fit their individual situations. This can lead to an escalating pattern where the more the planners seek compliance, the more the implementers do their own thing, or do nothing – ultimately resulting in the failure of the

–3 The change model is based on control and domination.
Fearing the unpredictable, chaotic nature of change and the threat of its unwanted consequences, managers employ pseudoscientific change management techniques in a vain attempt to control the process and create predictable and measurable outcomes. But although managers can control micro-level changes, such as introducing new corporate stationery, at the macro level too many of the variables are beyond human control.
Major change can no more be managed than the weather can be managed. Indeed, many major change programmes are little
more than ritual rain dances that satisfy man’s compelling need to take action in the face of a crisis. But whereas rain dances are harmless, many conventional change programmes have failure designed into them as they make no allowances for unanticipated developments.

–4 Stakeholder involvement is narrow.
Planners of conventional change programmes generally exclude the vast majority of internal stakeholders from the planning
process. Also, they tend to ignore important external stakeholder groups such as suppliers, customers and the local community. The opportunity to create a more widely-shared vision of the future is therefore lost, and key stakeholders may fail to provide vitally-needed support.

–5 Awareness of current reality is limited.
As a consequence of failing to involve from the outset everyone who will be affected by the change, a dangerously incomplete
picture of current reality is created. This is compounded by the fact that certain issues will be considered taboo and therefore
undiscussable. Wise strategic decisions are unlikely to be made when informed by such a limited information base.

–6 The focus is on identifying and solving problems.
Many models of organisational change are based on an elaboration of the problem solving model. Problem solving is about fixing things that have gone wrong, and the results tend to be incremental improvements rather than “order of magnitude” changes. Even if an organisation were to nail every one of its problems, this would not be enough for it to achieve its strategic

–7 The vision is shaped by an elite group of experts and senior managers.
The boss outlines his or her vision through a presentation. (“I have shared my vision, so now we have a shared vision.”)
Employees may buy into the vision but, after giving it more consideration, experience buyer’s remorse and as a consequence
withdraw their support.

–8 Linear thinking is used.
Linear thinking usually leads to ineffective change strategies, for two reasons. First, it produces a programme with a predetermined sequence of steps leading the organisation towards a fixed goal.
Rarely are there any opportunities for the goal to be reviewed and, if necessary, redefined. However, in reality, changes in the
internal and external operating environments may quickly render the original goal obsolete. The second reason is that the issue is not viewed in a broad enough context. If the complex web of causes and effects is not properly understood and delayed
reactions are not taken into account, then there is a strong likelihood that the change programme will fail to achieve its
objectives. In some cases it may set the organisation back evenfurther.

–9 Change strategy is communicated by transmitting messages.
The communication method is one where messages are transmitted from the bosses to “the troops”. The consequences are low
commitment and missed opportunities.

–10 Planning and implementation are sequential.
Conventional strategic planning (plan then implement) requires the world to stand still while the planners do their work.
Unfortunately the world keeps on turning and the planners never quite catch up.

The ten weaknesses add up to SLOW change
The consequences of the conventional approach to change areSLOW change:

  • The change is SLOW.
  • The change LACKS AGREEMENT, which means there’s not enough commitment for the change to happen.
  • The change is OFF STRATEGY. Results achieved are insufficient to position the organisation for sustainedsuccess.
  • The change is “WICKED”. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Transformational changes continue to be elusive and the organisation’s capacity to adapt remains unchanged.

From SLOW change to FASTCHANGE
FASTCHANGE has the following characteristics:

  • It is FAST.
  • It has the AGREEMENT of everyone concerned. There is widespread commitment to making the change happen.
  • It is STRATEGIC. The change effort results in new ways of doing business that position the entire organisation for
    sustainable success.
  • It is TRANSFORMATIONAL. The new organisation is fundamentally different from the old one. Formerly intractable problems disappear, and breakthrough results are achieved. The change is an all-or-nothing flip, rather than a gradual process, and the change is irreversible – there’s no going back. Once completed, the change benefits all stakeholders. And the organisation greatly expands its capacity to adapt.

Few people would disagree that change needs to be fast, agreed, strategic and transformational. But how can this be achieved?
FASTCHANGE becomes possible when the ten weaknesses listed on page 2 are translated into strengths, which then become
a set of conditions for success.

Ten conditions for successful change

+1 Top management adopts a new model of leadership.
The organisation’s leaders acknowledge that significant change
can only be achieved if they redefine their leadership purpose as
improving the organisation’s capacity to adapt, and radically
change their own assumptions, values, beliefs and behaviour
before doing anything else.
+2 The need for change is self-determined, and the change process is self-managed.
Everyone realises for themselves that change is needed, by
noticing the gap between current reality and the shared vision.
They create strategies and action plans together, with each
person taking responsibility for the successful implementation of
these plans.
+3 The change model is based on trust and co-operation.
Control is replaced with trust, and domination with co-operation.
Instead of trying to overpower the unseen forces of the natural
world, people gain creative power by co-operating with them.
People trust their own abilities and the ability of others to do the
right thing when given sufficient information. And they trust that
the process of change will take the organisation to wherever it
needs to be, even if the destination is not the one they originally
chose. Leaders still make interventions, but they are subtle and
wise ones like those described in John Heider’s book, The Tao of
Leadership. In this way people’s creativity is accessed and
+4 There is broad stakeholder involvement.
Everyone with a stake in the future success of the organisation is
actively and equally involved in the strategic planning process. As
joint architects of the change strategy these stakeholders have a
strong sense of ownership and are therefore heavily committed to
achieving the mutually-agreed results.
+5 Awareness of current reality is comprehensive.
All stakeholders contribute to the creation of a comprehensive
database of strategic information, which is kept up to date and
made available to all concerned. This database includes information
about matters previously considered undiscussable.
By having a clear and complete picture of current reality, wise
strategic and operational decisions can be made. And with information
widely available, power games are minimised.

+6 The focus is on seeing and realising future possibilities.
Behavioural scientist Ron Lippitt discovered that when groups
focus on solving problems they become depressed, but when they formulate plans by working backwards from what they really want to create, they develop energy, enthusiasm, optimism and high commitment. Strategic change is not about fixing things that have gone wrong – it’s about identifying bold new possibilities and implementing plans to make them real.
+7 The entire organisation is involved in shaping the vision.
All members of the organisation are involved in shaping a vision of the future. Many management thinkers including Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline) have written about the powerfully motivating effect of a compelling vision of the future that is shared by all members of the organisation.
+8 Systems thinking is employed.
Seductively simple models of cause and effect no longer form the basis of strategic decisions. Instead, organisational issues are viewed in all their messy complexity. There is an awareness of multiple causes and effects (including those that are greatly
separated in time), mutual causation and repeating patterns of
behaviour. When linear thinking is replaced by systems thinking, people stop blaming each other and take personal responsibility for what happens. They realise that control is an illusion, reframe failure as feedback and are better able to adapt quickly to rapidly changing circumstances. For more information on systems thinking, see Appendix II.
+9 Change is guided by and emerges from strategic
The “transmission of messages” approach to communication is
abandoned in favour of an interactive one based on strategic
conversations involving members of many different stakeholder groups. By bringing new voices together, new conversations can happen, new perspectives can emerge, new passions can be aroused and new possibilities for the future can emerge. (Acknowledgements: Prof. Gary Hamel.)
+10 Planning and implementation are simultaneous.
There is a plan-implement-plan-implement (ad infinitum)
sequence so seamless that planning and implementation are no
longer viewed as separate activities.


Meetings are an essential part of organisational life, particularly those convened to plan the organisation’s future.
Yet the majority of business meetings – perhaps as many as 70% – are considered by participants to be unproductive.
The same goes for the really big meetings we call corporate conferences. Often these events are nothing more than a ritual gathering of the clans, and achieve little beyond a short term lift in morale.
The time has come for some new thinking. Organisations need planning meetings and conferences that will produce outstanding results consistently. Results such as a compelling
vision of the future that everyone owns, action plans that people are wholeheartedly committed to implementing, decisions that have widespread acceptance, and learnings that will enable the organisation to survive and prosper in this
time of relentless and ever-accelerating change. How might such meetings and conferences be created?
Martin Leith has identified a set of guiding principles for creating effective meetings and conferences such as:

  • strategic planning meetings
  • problem solving workshops
  • think tank sessions
  • vision and strategy retreats (“awaydays”)
  • change implementation meetings
  • corporate conferences

These principles have been grouped under six main headings:
Planning the meeting/conference; Attendance of the meeting/ conference; Managing the meeting/conference; Meeting/ conference activities; Interaction between participants; Venue, staging and logistics. In each case the traditional thinking is shown first, followed by the new thinking.
Sponsors and designers of planning meetings and conferences will require much commitment and trust when they decide to follow the principles. However, this will eventually lead to high levels of commitment and trust in members of the entire
organisation, which will in turn lead to FASTCHANGE.

Planning the meeting/conference

1 Conventional thinking: The meeting should be planned and designed by a small group of senior people.
New thinking: The meeting should be planned and designed by a team that includes a cross section of people (diverse functions, different status levels) who are actually going to take part in it. The new ways of thinking, communicating and working that are required in the
meeting under consideration should be modelled in the design team meetings: ‘The change starts here.’
2 Conventional thinking: Plan everything in advance, in great detail. Have scripts and a strict timetable from which nobody will deviate. This creates a quality product, shows
professionalism and prevents chaos.

New thinking: Plan the structure and processes, and let the content take care of itself. The overall focus should be on responding to the needs of the group. To do this, have a flexible programme and, if necessary, be prepared to redesign the event as it happens.

Attendance of the meeting/conference
3 Conventional thinking: People who attend the meeting are to be regarded as the “audience”.
New thinking: People who attend the meeting are to be regarded as active participants.
4 Conventional thinking: If necessary, ensure people’s attendance by using manipulation, bullying, etc.
New thinking: As a general rule, people’s attendance should be voluntary.
5 Conventional thinking: Don’t involve too many people (functions, levels, interest groups) or you won’t be able to control the process.
New thinking: Involve as many people as are needed to get the required levels of information and commitment.
The key questions here are: Who knows? Who cares? Who can? There are many effective methods available for managing large diverse groups – see page 7.
6 Conventional thinking: Don’t involve junior people (or customers, or suppliers, or members of the local community).
New thinking: Involve everyone who has a stake in the ongoing viability and success of the organisation. Ask: “If this organisation were to cease to exist, who would be adversely affected?”

Managing the meeting/conference
7 Conventional thinking: The sponsors, chairman and speakers are responsible for what is achieved in the meeting.
New thinking: The group is responsible for what is achieved in the meeting. (See also #14.)
8 Conventional thinking: People are irresponsible and cannot be trusted to make wise decisions. They therefore need to be kept on a tight rein.
New thinking: People want to take responsibility for their lives, and can be trusted to make wise decisions as long
as they are given all available information and provided with clear boundaries.
9 Conventional thinking: Meetings should be controlled by a chairman or other authority figure who imposes law and order and ensures that everyone keeps to the timetable.
New thinking: The most successful meetings employ a high degree of self-management. Focus on providing the best environment, structure, processes and facilitation for
people to do good work.
10 Conventional thinking: Keep everything under control, minimise risks and avoid chaos at all costs.
New thinking: Be fluid and go with the flow. Risk taking is essential for growth – create a climate where people feel it
is safe to take risks. Help people move through the chaos and discover the creativity and learning that lie beyond.
Meeting/conference activities

Meeting/conference activities
11 Conventional thinking: Communication should be one way, from the platform to the auditorium. Question and answer sessions should be tightly controlled so that they do not disintegrate into anarchy.
New thinking: Two way communication between participants, and between participants and facilitator(s), is essential. The facilitator’s group process skills will stop anarchy taking over.
12 Conventional thinking: The audience has come to get answers which we – the experts – will provide through a series of presentations. We must never admit that we don’t have all the answers.
New thinking: Participants have come to pool their knowledge. Experts are largely redundant. It’s OK for the leaders to show their ignorance.
13 Conventional thinking: Deliver maximum value by getting straight down to business and filling every minute of the day right through to departure time.
New thinking: Allow enough time at the beginning for people to fully arrive and connect with the other participants so that a sense of community is created. Punctuate the meeting with lots of breaks. Make sure that time is allowed for a period of completion before people depart.
14 Conventional thinking: Be prescriptive – tell people what to do. Give audience members little or no say in what happens during the meeting.
New thinking: Ask participants what they want. Encourage them to take individual and collective responsibility for what happens in the meeting.
15 Conventional thinking: To create a businesslike atmosphere, the chairman and presenters should avoid humour, be cool, keep their distance and avoid familiarity.
New thinking: To create a productive working environment, everyone should strive to keep things as human as possible. People should convey warmth and passion, be authentic and create intimacy.
16 Conventional thinking: Never stray from left-brained activities – i.e. rational, analytical thinking.
New thinking: Engage the whole person – mind (left and right brain), body, emotions and spirit. Use drawing, music, movement, visualisation – whatever is required to create a meaningful experience.
17 Conventional thinking: People must feel comfortable at all times.
New thinking: Learning and change can be uncomfortable, so create a suitable container for this discomfort – establish a “safe space” and provide supportive conditions.
18 Conventional thinking: Stick to hard-nosed business issues and avoid anything personal.
New thinking: Come to terms with the fact that learning and change are very personal matters.
19 Conventional thinking: People will resist anything touchyfeely, arty-farty or otherwise “unconventional”, so there’s no point in considering such activities.
New thinking: People are capable of enjoying and
benefiting from a wide range of experiences. A talented
facilitator can inspire a group to engage in all sorts of
“unconventional” activities.
20 Conventional thinking: Get people to buy into your ideas by selling them on the benefits.
New thinking: It’s not enough to get people to buy in –they may later experience buyer’s remorse. What’s
needed is ownership. People usually take ownership and give their full commitment when they have had a hand in developing the plan.
21 Conventional thinking: Information is power, so limit its distribution.
New thinking: During the meeting, ensure that strategic
information is surfaced, shared and put on display where everyone can see it.