Chapter for Publication in The OD Handbook, Tom Cummings (Editor). Sage Publications.

Large Group Interventions:

Whole System Approaches to Organizational Change

Thomas J. Griffin

Ameritech Corporation

Ronald E. Purser

  San Francisco State University


Large group interventions (LGIs) have, over the last decade, gained prominence and legitimacy in the field of organization development (Bunker and Alban, 1997).  LGIs are essentially collaborative inquiries into organizational systems, practices, and processes that are designed to create alignment around strategic direction and system-wide issues.  While there are many differences and varieties of LGI methods, they all share in common the values that have informed OD theory and practice, particularly the imperative for inclusiveness and widespread participation in the change process.   Large group interventions have been used as an integral component 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.

Many case studies describe how these organizational change methods have been used in  diverse industries, such as transportation (Ford, Amtrak, United Airlines, Boeing, Northwest Airlines), hospitality (Marriott), financial services (World Bank, Bank of Montreal, Richmond Savings, Amalgamated Bank of South Africa), Health Care (Inova Health Systems, Columbus Regional Hospital), telecommunications (GTE, Lucent, AT&T, U.S. West, Motorola), retail (Levi Strauss, Liz Claiborne, General Electric, Donnelly, Xerox, Whole Foods), energy (Mobile, Detroit Edison, Pacific Power), government (U.S. Department of Agriculture), non-government (Save the Children, World Vision), education (George Washington University, University of Minnesota, Keene State University), computers and electronics (Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard), chemicals (Dupont), and many local, regional and state government organizations (Bunker and Alban, 1997; Holman and Devane, 1999; Chase, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998; Sullivan, 1997). Unfortunately, empirical research, such as longitudinal studies, quasi-experimental field studies, and studies of large sample sizes across a wide variety of LGIs are severely lacking. Data that is available tends to be anecdotal or single case studies from practitioners and consultants who have a commercial stake in promoting their own methods.

Basic Beliefs and Assumptions of LGIs

LGIs, also known as critical mass events, large group interactive events, whole systems change, and large-scale organizational change grew out of the field of Organizational Development (OD), evolving from OD practices that emerged in the 1950s.  OD is a set of concepts and techniques for improving organizational effectiveness and individual well-being that had its genesis in the behavioral sciences and was tested in real-world organizations (French, Bell, and Zawacki, 1994).  The theoretical influences that have informed LGIs can be traced to open systems theory and systems thinking (Bertalanffy, 1952; Emery & Trist, 1965; Katz & Kahn, 1978; Senge, 1990), social constructionism (Berger and Luckman, 1967; Gergen, 1994), values theory (Maslow, 1943; McGregor, 1960), futuring (Lippitt, 1983, Schlinder-Rainman and Lippitt, 1980), group dynamics (Bion, 1961, Bennis and Shepard, 1956, Lewin, 1951, Tuckman, 1965, Smith and Berg, 1987), and large group dynamics (Alford, 1989; Turquet, 1975; Pasmore and Fagans, 1992; Gilmore and Barnett 1992; Kreeger, 1975).

Systems thinking (and open systems theory)  has played a central role in the theoretical basis of LGIs. A systems thinking perspective considers processes, relationships, and interactions across the system as a whole.  The essence of systems thinking according to Senge (1994) is that an organization is a whole system that cannot be reduced into independent parts.  Systems thinking is based on the following assumptions:

·         An organization is a complex puzzle.

·         No single person or group understands the entire puzzle but everyone holds a piece of the puzzle that is important to the overall picture.

·         When viewed collectively, the pieces provide a more holistic understanding of the system and its potential for change.

·         To understand the entire puzzle, all piece holders (larger groups) must meet and work together.

·         If everyone is working on the system together to implement the change, it will happen more quickly and effectively.

Senge further states that a systems thinking perspective is integral to the development of a learning culture and that firsthand experience of  “undivided wholeness”  is important to the development of a systems thinking perspective. Large group interventions provide organizations a means to put systems thinking into practice and to be part of a larger more holistic strategy for change.  This is also consistent with the findings of Miller and Friesen (1984) who assert a holistic perspective for changing organizational structures and management systems requires an analysis of overall patterns, rather than focusing narrowly on isolated organizational properties.  By intervening at the whole systems level we understand more than just the individual dynamics and ripple effects (Manning and Binzagar, 1996).  LGIs get the whole system or a significant part of it in the room at the same time and design changes in shorter periods of time compared to traditional methods (Weisbord and Janoff, 1995). 

The use of these methods required a paradigm shift on the part of the traditional change management practitioners about large group dynamics.  A body of critical work related to large group dynamics has been emerging over the last 25 to 30 years.  Groups are defined as large groups when it becomes impossible for each group member to maintain eye-to eye contact (Alford and Klein, 1989;Turquet, 1975).  Gilmore and Barnett (1992) state that large group dynamics begin once a group exceeds 15 to 20 participants.

Systems change using large groups of people held a contrary view to what was normally accepted; that group size and participation were adversely related (Pasmore and Fagans, 1992; Gilmore and Barnett, 1992).  According to these theories, large groups induce stereotyping, decrease ownership of ideas, increase abstraction, and generate hesitation to express unique thoughts (Weick, 1999).  To overcome these beliefs, practitioners had to let go of these traditional assumptions about large groups and accept a systems thinking perspective. 

Organizational development and change using large group methods goes against prior findings that group size and participation were adversely related (Pasmore and Fagans, 1992; Gilmore and Barnett, 1992).  According to these theories, large groups induce stereotyping, decrease ownership of ideas, increase abstraction, and generate hesitation to express unique thoughts (Weick, 1999). 

The conventional justification for using these processes is that (a) people tend to support what they help create (Weisbord and Janoff, 1995) and (b) the diversity of knowledge generated through these high involvement practices leads to greater creativity and innovation in both the technical and social systems arena (Bunker and Alban, 1997).  The use of LGIs may also ensure  the required changes in attitudes, skills, and beliefs, and behaviors happen simultaneously (Levine and Mohr, 1998).  Inherent in the design of large group methods are the underlying assumptions that people want and will accept responsibility; have the creative ability and organizational knowledge to help solve problems and devise new ways of doing things; and, will take action towards the achievement of goals that they feel committed to.  Large group methods extend high involvement management practices (Lawler, 1986) to its maximum in regards to decision making, sharing of information, sharing of power, and employee participation.  These beliefs are also consistent with Lewin’s notion that the validity of research is improved when people in the setting become active participants in the meaning making process (Lewin, 1951). 

The participatory assumptions cited above are reflective of many of the principles that have been the cornerstone of Organization Development theory and practice. However, such values towards inclusiveness, participation, egalitarianism, and power-sharing are not universally shared across national cultures. As Hofstede’s (xxxx) research has shown, national cultures that are low on power distance would not likely be receptive or supportive of LGIs which are designed to equalize power-sharing, minimize status differences, and promote high degrees of participation.   

 A core belief of LGI methods is that people want to make meaningful connections and to align themselves with organizations that are congruent with their values.  The design of LGIs encourage people to engage in conversations in order to improve their work-group and organizational effectiveness (Emery and Purser, 1996; Weisbord and Janoff, 1995; Jacobs, 1994; Spencer, 1989; Axelrod, 2000, 1992; Pasmore, 1994; Purser and Cabana, 1998; Dannemiller and Jacobs, 1992; Cabana, 1995; Emery, 1995; Klein, 1992; Owen, 1992; Cooperrider and Whitney, 1998). 



Varieties of LGI Methods

Bunker and Alban (1997) identified twelve large group methods for whole systems change (Search Conference, Future Search, Real Time Strategic Change, ICA Strategic Planning Process, The Conference Model, Fast Cycle Full Participation, Real Time Work Design, Participative Design, Simu-Real, Work-Out, Open Space Technology, and Large Scale Interactive Events).  They divided these 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.

Similarly, Holman and Devane (1999) outlined eighteen large group high-leverage (their notation) methods for navigating through change (Search Conference, Future Search, ICA, Strategic Forum, Participative Design Workshop, Gemba Kaizen, Fast Cycle Full Participation, Whole Systems Approach, Preferred Futuring, SimuReal, Organization Workshop, Whole-Scale Change, Dialogue, Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, Conference Model, Think Like a Genius, and Real Time Strategic Change).  They also divided these large-scale systems models into three categories:

·         Planning methods to help set a direction for an organization or a community,

·         Structuring methods to redefine working relationships among organization members and create new structures for doing work, and

·         Adaptable methods that vary, including planning, structuring, and other complex, important purposes. 

Both sources describe each method in detail, their distinguishing features and theoretical roots, potential use applications, and suggested resources for further study.  At the center of all these methods is the recognition that the knowledge required for successful change resides within the stakeholders who comprise the organizational system.  These methods use a systems approach to tap into organization member’s creative intelligence for shaping the future in meaningful and empowering ways through high levels of participation and information sharing; purposeful dialogue to create shared meaning, understanding, and context; shared decision making to build commitment and; focused action planning for timely implementation.

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 people;
  • 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. 


OD Principles and LGIs: Alignment, Common Ground, and Energy for Change

Real Time Strategic Change (RTSC) is a type of large group intervention that was developed by the late Kathleen Dannemiller with Sylvia James and Paul Tolchinsky (1999) in work done at Ford Motor Company.  This approach is highly structured and organized with events grounded in giving participants a common database of information from which to work. Event design, although customized around a specific issue, is based on Richard Beckhard and Reuben Harris's change formula, as revised by Kathleen Dannemiller (2000; 1999; 1992) for diagnosing and planning a significant change, as seen in the formula: 

Change = (Dissatisfaction)(Vision)(First Steps) > Resistance

Change is given the opportunity to occur when three elements are in place simultaneously, including:

·         Dissatisfaction with the present situation,

  • A compelling vision of how the change will create a better

           future, and

  • First steps for reaching the vision.

If any of these elements is missing, or collectively they are less powerful than the resistance to the change, then change will not take place. Thus, the first part of an intervention focuses on creating a common database and the foundation for the dissatisfaction.  Following that, the intervention moves to creating a future that is far more desirable than that which caused the dissatisfaction. It ends with participants discovering the steps that are necessary for moving the organization and themselves forward.

Jacobs (1994) further elaborates that the significance of the common database is that every perspective and skill set, from front-line worker to supplier to customer to executive to stockholder, is present during these events.  As soon as information is shared and people get involved, action begins to happen.  Jacobs refers to the creative energy that is generated in RTSC as “alignment,” and describes it as the point at which people begin to understand how the whole organization fits together as a total system. 

Weisbord and Janoff (1995) refer to this sense of alignment participants of a future search conference experience as “common ground.”  They say these events are designed to help organizations collaborate collectively to discover their ideal future and then design that future. In the future search conference, they claim that groups acknowledge their differences, work in spite of them, and move forward in areas where there is alignment and common ground.  They describe the creative energy produced as transformative when groups decide to work beyond uncontrollable issues toward a more ideal future. 

Kathleen Dannemiller (2000; 1999; 1992) refers to this sense of alignment and common ground as the "one brain, one heart" effect.  She describes this as a very complex association of brain and heart that brings together a diverse group of individuals for a common purpose. Diana Whitney and David Cooperrider (1998) assert that in these events the search is not for common ground, but for a higher sense of possibility that excites, inspires, and drives action.  They refer to this sense of higher possibility as “higher ground.”  During appreciative interviews and small and large group dialogues, people are encouraged to identify the most moving, innovative, and meaningful ideas and possibilities, not the most frequent or most common.  Doing so gets people excited and more inspired to follow through with actions, decisions, and more exciting future possibilities.

      In these events, participants experience in very personal ways the highs and low of joy, hope, inspiration, connectedness, affiliation and empathy as well as at times confusion, discomfit, and differences.  This rise and fall of emotion combined with creative thinking and the launching of shared action initiatives produces what has been previously described as alignment, common ground, creating community, the one brain one heart effect, and higher ground.  When these effects are produced, people have a better understanding of how the whole system fits together and in turn can impact it in more profound and effective ways. The modes of organizing that these types of events represent also facilitates the alignment of both individual and organization core values and beliefs.  Mohrman and Lawler (1985) suggest that a set of shared values and beliefs is critical to fostering cooperation, collaboration, and learning during change processes.  When individual and organizational values and beliefs are closely aligned and integrated into organizational change efforts, ownership, commitment, and support for the change is intensified and resistance is minimized.  

The alignment of values and beliefs between individuals and organizations is consistent with the concept of perceived organizational identity (Dutton et al., 1994).  Perceived organizational identity is what the organizational member perceives to be distinctive, central, and enduring about the organization.  It is an identification process that is socially constructed and represents the extent to which the organizational member defines themselves by the same attributes they believe define the organization.  Dutton et al. (1994) further argue that organizational members identify with an organization when a) their identity as an organizational member is more important than alternate identities, and b) their self concept contains many of the same attributes they believe define the organization as an entity or social group.  This identification leads organizational members to participate in and support activities that are congruent with that identity (Ashforth and Mael, 1989), resulting in favorable outcomes (Cialdini et al., 1976).

Unique Dilemmas and Dynamics in LGIs

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. 

Key Propositions Underlying Large Group Interventions

            While there are methodological differences among various LGI techniques, we propose a set of propositions that define what has often been referred to as a “whole systems” approach to change.  LGIs have been embraced by many organizational scholars and practitioners as the preferred method of change because they focus on the ecology of the whole system (Ray, 1995).  Whole systems approaches to organizational change are rooted in the philosophy that organizations are living systems or communities, and that organizational effectiveness is equivalent to active adaptation to a changing environment. Organizations which have the capacity for active adaptation are “healthy” systems. To be healthy is synonymous with being “whole,” with having a lived sense of wholeness. A sense of the whole begins to emerge in LGIs when participants:

·         Experience a sense of interdependence and interconnectedness with others

·         Engage in processes that brings a systems perspective to the events purpose

·         Achieve visible results through highly participative and synergistic methods

·         Feel a sense of appreciation and positive affect for self, others, and the organizational system

·         Build community and trust through shared learning and experience

·         Feel a sense of oneness that all are in this together regardless of position or level

·         Feel a sense of greater hope for a better, more nurturing, and fulfilling future   


We have derived six key propositions based on principles of wholeness, transforming organizations from cultures that promote short-term thinking, separateness, fragmentation, and hyper-individualism to ones that foster unity, inclusion, appreciation, collaboration and long-term possibility.  These principles are derived from theory and research previously discussed and serve as the foundation upon which LGI and whole systems methods were developed.  The six propositions that support LGI methodology and foster a sense of wholeness are described below.

Proposition 1: Dialogue among stakeholders is necessary to transform collective thinking processes and find deeper meaning.

Dialogue in LGIs involves sharing experiences, story-telling and making private assumptions public.  Dialogue, according to Hatch, (1997 p. 368) builds on belief in the powers of collective thought – that human minds in interaction are capable of transcending individual limitations and empowering new ideas. Senge (1994) asserts that in dialogue, groups are able to explore difficult and complex issues because they learn to suspend their own assumptions.  This frees them up to deeply explore issues, experiences, and thought and move beyond their own individual views. 

Through generative dialogue, people are capable of experiencing change that becomes the source of collective action and collaboration.  In the context of LGIs, inter-organizational dialogue goes beyond provincial boundaries and helps to construct shared meaning, promote learning, foster greater understanding, reduce conflict, and strengthen cooperative spirit.  Constructive dialogue  moves people and systems beyond traditional forms of communication that favor debate, argumentation, competition, and single-minded avocations.  These forms of communication produce fragmented and incoherent interchanges (Bohm, 1998) that reinforce cultures (shared values, attitudes, and practices) of individuality, oversimplification, and either-or alternative thinking.  Bohm’s thinking about dialogue was based on the belief that if people became more aware of their collective thinking and the subsequent meaning it produced, it would coherently move them towards a sense of the whole and allow them to transform their position for the better (Ellinor and Gerard, 1998). 

Hazen (1993) suggests that organizations can be understood as socially constructed verbal systems composed of stories, discourses, narratives, and texts.  In these verbal systems, each person has a different voice and ability to contribute to the organization narrative.  Through dialogic resources and techniques used in LGIs, viewpoints are expounded, recounted, interpreted, and even questioned.  The pluralistic nature of LGIs emphasizing diversity of participation produces vertical and horizontal multi-voiced dialogues that help participants engage in sense-making activities that produce a shared meaning of the collective organizational reality.  In a similar sense Barrett et al. (1995) posit that discourse is the core of any organizational change process.  It is through patterns of discourse (dialogue) that relational bonds are formed and viewpoints are shaped. They further state that communication is by far more than just a way for transmitting information between people.  Instead, they believe that communication forms the basis by which organizing produces co-constructed meaning.  In this sense, communication helps to establish organizing processes by its members.  This means, then, that words themselves do not necessarily create meaning, but rather meaning is created through dialogic processes in relational practice.

According to Schein (1993), organizational effectiveness is progressively dependent on effective communication across sub-cultures and boundaries. By creating opportunities for effective conversations across sub-cultures and boundaries, organizations can maximize its potential for innovation and creative change. Coordination and integration then becomes a function of the ability to develop a common lexicon and a sense of shared meaning.  Schein states that the practice of dialogue brings about the creation of new possibilities for effective communication.  In LGI settings, the practice of dialogue across sub-cultures and boundaries helps organizational members to think more generatively, creatively, and with a greater sense of the whole in mind. In this context, the whole system becomes the object of learning and members experience in very personal ways the synergistic effects of their collective participation, learning, and action. 

Proposition 2: Community building and relational practices foster interdependence and interconnectedness.

Quality relationships are at the heart of community (Levey and Levey, 1995).  Through relationships people connect with others, with their environment, their common purpose, history, and desirable futures (Emery & Purser, 1996). It is through relational practices that people learn and make sense of their shared circumstances and organizational realities.  In LGIs, the power of relationships generates creative energy that synergizes the whole system as it works together.  Synergy results because conscious attention is paid to improving the relational quality between and among its community participants and in relation to the whole. Since work performed in LGIs is carried out as interconnected webs of interdependent parts, relational quality makes a critical difference in the over results (Ellinor and Gerard, 1998).  The use of community building techniques is important to the success of most LGI methods because they improve planning and involvement, increase morale, foster a greater sense of connectedness, and generate needed buy-in for effective implementation of change initiatives (Zemke, 1996). 

            The idea of community is such an immense and elusive phenomenon that, like wholeness, is not easily defined.  Peck (1993) defines community as “a way of being together with both individual authenticity and interpersonal harmony so that people become able to function with a collective energy even greater than the sum of their individual energies”.  Peck approaches community from a relational perspective, stating “If you get 80-100 people working together for a common purpose for three to five days, they will be in community with each other.”  He further states that “Community comes from the Latin root communitas, which means a unified body of people linked by common interest or circumstance.  Peck (1987) further states that community, like a priceless gem is multisided, each individual side a semblance of the whole but interconnected and profoundly interrelated.  Community, then, requires that people communicate openly and honestly with one another, partake in communal activities, develop more meaningful relationships that go deeper than surface subtleties, and commit themselves to something larger than their individual selves.  It is in the spirit of relationship that community is forged and wholeness begins to manifest.  When community begins to form, the perspective of the whole becomes the primary focus.  When the perspective of the whole becomes primary, generative learning and change can occur.    

            Our humanness causes us to long for meaningful relationships in all aspects of our lives.  These relationships provide us with the necessary sustenance and collective energy to overcome many of the difficulties inherent in our society.  Schaffer and Anundsen (1993) cite medical, psychological, and sociological evidence to the life extending and saving qualities of relational support.  The emergence of the Industrial Age with its focus on growth, efficiency, and profit brought with it a fragmented and reductionistic managerial perspective that served to break down, damage, and deny the need for meaningful relationships at work.  Organizational members were looked at as interchangeable and expendable parts that could be easily replaced when they wore out or when their usefulness had been consumed (Emery & Purser, 1996). 

            In response to the fragmentation of the Industrial Age, new thinking points towards a focus on community and relationships.  Clearly, organizational change also requires a focus on partnership, collaboration, alignment, and systemic involvement towards a common purpose.  Schaffer and Anundsen (1993) identify eight qualities that must exist for community and relational competence to flourish in the workplace on a continuous basis:

1.      Alignment of personal and work related values among organizational members at all levels. 

2.      Flatter organizational structures with more decentralized and customer centered decision making. 

3.      Teamwork and interdependence.

4.      More open communication and inclusion of employee’s ideas. 

5.      Mutual support.

6.      Respect for individuality in job design.

7.      Permeable boundaries among functions

8.      Group renewal to resolve conflict, promote organizational values, and celebrate successes. 


The quest for community in the workplace brings with it a search for civility, interconnected relatedness, commitment, and sense of wholeness.  To do so requires that we give up our congenital need to control outcomes, take interpersonal risks leading to more openness and vulnerability, embrace the need for diversity, and foster trustworthiness through direct, personal, and face-to-face communication and relational ways of knowing.  

LGIs and Social Constructionism.  The propositions discussed thus far are based on the underlying tenets of social constructionism (Gergen, 1982, 1990, 1994, 1998; Burr, 1995; Coperrider & Srivastva, 1987).  Social constructionism asserts that our impression about the nature of truth and reality are conceived not from the nature of the external world itself but rather from the conversations and relational practices that people engage in.  Our words (language) create our worlds and govern our external actions and behaviors.  In other words, meaning-making occurs in our relatedness with one another (Gergen, 1991).  Our conversations serve as linguistic instruments that promote interpersonal connection, sense of purpose, and greater understanding. 

LGIs use relational and participative methods to involve stakeholders, explore and test assumptions, generate feedback, and drive action. At the heart of LGI practices is the belief that the knowledge required for successful organizational change resides within the stakeholders who comprise it.  Inherent in this knowledge creation process is the notion that people produce through discourse (dialogue/conversation/language processes), the conditions by which their thoughts and actions are determined and how their reality is constructed.  In LGIs, conversation is the primary medium through which collective wisdom and coordinated action is produced.  LGIs, then, focus on active interaction and social processes as ways of helping organizational members see and think differently.  LGIs create the conversational space where people can  change the way in which they talk to one another, constructing new images of the organization in their collective minds. Language, thus, is a powerful way of shaping organizational reality; social knowledge and organizational destiny are interwoven (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987). 

The social constructionist viewpoint with its emphasis on dialogue and relationship is essential in helping organization members to understand that meaning is created through social context rather than being a given. Since knowledge creation is at the heart of most organization development and change activities, organizational scholars and practitioners must be skilled in creating new and more effective ways in using language as a form of social action.  In the realm of politics, Lakoff (2002) has recently criticized the Democratic party in the U.S. for not understanding the power of language through the use of metaphors to shape political agendas and the public consciousness.  In contrasts, Lakoff credits the Republican’s party ability to control the political agenda of the US to their skillful and strategic use of metaphors to “rename” issues. For example, the bill to clear cut old growth forests was renamed “The Healthy Forests Act.”  A  political phrase such as “compassionate capitalism” utilizes a powerful metaphor to reframe the issue to suit the proponent’s advantage.  The power of language to shape social reality can be used to create Orwellian-like doublespeak, or to honestly evoke the passion, energy and commitment of people.

Viewing LGIs through the social constructionist lens helps to promote inclusiveness and innovation into the design of the change process.  Social constructionism constituted in LGIs for organizational change posits that:

·         Social (language, interaction, and relational) processes are used to create and maintain beliefs.

·         Knowledge is sustained by social processes.

·         Language is a form of social action.

·         Identity and reality are based on shared language.

·         Reality, knowledge, thought, facts, texts, selves and so on are viewed as community generated and community maintained linguistic entities.

·         People produce through discourse (talking) the social conditions by which their thoughts, actions, and feelings are determined - that is meaning is made in social contexts rather than given.

·         Both the content and form of human experience is constructed in ongoing social interaction – knowledge and truth are therefore multi vocal collaborations.

·         Conversation is a source model for explaining how the discursive order is constructed.

·         Knowledge is sustained between people through discursive resources and that life and research is socially constructed.

·         Meaning (truth and reality) is derived more from shared relationships than from individual consciousness.


Proposition 3: Collective learning increases a system’s capacity to produce results that matter.

Learning, so to speak, is socially constructed in organizations which transforms cognition in action into practical knowledge (Nicolini and Meznar, 1995).  The social construction of knowledge through LGIs is a robust learning method that occurs when organizations learn how to reflect upon themselves. This approach to collective learning provides opportunities for co-creating organizational futures. Without organizational learning there can be little change, at least none that is not speculative or accidental (Fiol and Lyles, 1985).  Large-scale change then requires large-scale learning, which also requires being willing to discover potential blind spots that inhibit organizational effectiveness. Feedback (giving/receiving) is central to learning, growth, and development--both personally and organizationally.  Valid information and feedback increases awareness of areas that need to change, encourages acceptance to those changes, and drives action to implement those changes (Argyris. ). 

LGIs create in effect “generative learning environments” that enable people to suspend traditional beliefs and assumptions about how and what they can learn and ultimately what they can become. Generative learning environments focus on the longview, promote risk taking, behavioral experimentation, and feedback to stimulate new ways of looking at things, particularly our own individual worldviews.  Generative learning, in this sense, enlarges our ability to create, innovate, and evolve.  LGIs promote the use of generative practice fields (Senge, 1994) where people can speak openly and unencumbered about important business issues and collaboratively explore options for more effective ways of operating.  When viewed as such, LGIs become pathways toward wholeness, connectedness, and interdependence that ultimately help to produce more sustainable and adaptive organizations. 

Proposition 4: Diversity through shared inquiry promotes system vitality, synergy, resourcefulness, and growth.

Diversity brings fresh ideas, alternative views, contrasting opinions, healthy dissent, dissimilar resources, and new options to any situation.  Incorporating diversity helps stimulate growth, evolution, health, vitality, and common good, as well as encouraging tolerance, constructive conflict, and the valuing of differences.  In LGIs, a diversity and plurality of views and perspectives enriches a shared inquiry and promotes constructive dissent.  Valuing differences is maximized through the use of effective dialogue and relational practices.  Dialogue promotes a deeper, more profound understanding of a system’s diversity, which contributes to greater health, and appreciation of the whole.  LGIs provide organizational members the opportunity to communicate and collaborate across these differences to build community and consensus towards a higher purpose and a common good.  LGIs seek wholeness through the incorporation of diversity (Gardner, 1995).  Gardner argues that wholeness incorporating diversity is the transcendent task for our generation, here and abroad. Wholeness incorporating diversity is realized when all segments (differences) become committed to the common good, practice respect and tolerance, and reach back and reflect the whole. 

Diversity is also a necessary attribute for systemic synergy.  When diverse perspectives in a system are present, there is a dynamic energy that is produced.  The dynamic energy that is produced by the synergy stimulates the creation of new ideas, creative conflict,  and options for action that otherwise might have been overlooked.  In other words for a system to synergize and function optimally as a coherent whole, its parts have to effectively relate to each other and to the whole.  To disregard looking at the systems parts in relation to the larger system to which it belongs, is to distort its purpose and meaning in conjunction with the whole. 

LGIs provide organizations with opportunities to promote the use of its diversity to the fullest.  The use of individual strengths, gifts, and talents for the good of the whole promotes a sense of openness, inclusion, and trust that is essential to the collective health, well being, and sustainability of the whole and its ability to adapt and flourish in an ever changing world. 

Proposition 5: Self-managing methods foster commitment and shared responsibility.

            LGIs create the right type of conditions for people to take ownership and responsibility for the success of the change effort.  They become part of the change they want to see.  An important aspect of adult learning theory popularized by Marv Weisbord (1995) is that people tend support what they help create.  When people are given opportunities to take greater levels of responsibility for task and process outcomes, their personal learning is deepened and contributions are maximized. LGIs provide participants with many applied learning opportunities to self-manage small group tasks, dialogues, presentations, and action planning. The more that participants are involved in capturing, organizing, managing, and taking action on system data, the more inspired and committed they are to follow through and implement. 

            Use of self-managing methods has the added benefit of building system capability once the event is over.  Allowing small groups to choose process roles and functions such as leader, facilitator, timekeeper, recorder, and presenter foster a sense of shared leadership and promotes the learning of new behaviors and skills.  The more that people are given the opportunity to manage themselves in these events the more they will rise to the occasion and produce results beyond what is expected.  The use of self-managing methods also provides organization members with a greater understanding of the organizational conditions, environmental forces, and internal system issues.

            Self-management flourishes in a psychologically safe environment.  A safe environment exists when people feel free to speak openly without fear that their viewpoints will somehow be marginalized, judged, or arbitrarily rebuked.  This means inviting disagreement and encouraging dissenting opinions (Axelrod, 2000).  For a safe environment to exist people must be willing to suspend their own assumptions, listen for deeper levels of understanding, and allow room for new ideas to rise up and be heard. A safe environment creates a “holding space” where individual and organizational learning blossoms, collaboration grows, and system appreciation thrives in spirit of the whole.  Openness, teamwork, caring, commitment, respect, mutual trust, connection, understanding, creativity, imagination, creative break through, and coordinated action are the primary fruits of a safe environment. 

Proposition 6: Whole systems perspective involves understanding how all factors (people, processes, sub-systems, and technology) within the system relate to each other and to the whole.

 A system cannot be understood by looking at its isolated parts since this leads to an incomplete and fragmented picture of the system’s operation.  To understand the system, one must understand how the parts of the system relate, interact, and what they comprise collectively.  System insights emerge when the whole is studied in relation to its parts and its parts in relation to the whole (Wheatley, 1999).      

LGIs represent an integrated and comprehensive approach to organizational change that use systems thinking to develop awareness of the whole.  Developing an awareness of the whole includes recognizing and understanding patterns and interrelationships, learning how to structure those interrelationships in more effective and efficient ways, and establishing feedback processes to influence the system.  Going beyond isolated, linear, cause and effect thinking, LGIs are a strategy for systemic change that involves all components of the organizational system.  To evoke system wide change, the parts of the system have to understand the behavior and operation of the whole, and to learn and understand about the whole, the system must understand the behavior and operation of the individual parts.  As described by physicist David Bohm (1980), everything is enfolded into everything else, each part contains information about the whole and each part is a sub total of the entire whole and participates in its dynamic and interactive process. 

In LGIs, wholeness emerges through the dynamic interaction between the whole and its the parts.  Parts of the system (small groups) work together to understand its environmental influences, create system awareness, diagnose and identify improvement opportunities, understand and improve the relationships and communication paths among the different parts of the system, and to create new visions or preferred ways of organizing to meet future needs.  Periodically the whole system comes together (large group) to understand, provide feedback to, and align the work of the parts (small groups) and to apprehend and celebrate the impact they have on the larger system.  The dynamic interaction between the whole and its parts produces synergy and a shared vision of the whole that is critical to its success as a system.  Each successive interaction between the whole and its parts generates new learning (whole and part) and system insights that will help the system to thrive in a dynamic environment. 



             Relational practices that promote a greater sense of wholeness hold enormous implications for the field of Organizational Development and in particular the study of Large Group Interventions.  Social constructionism (Berger & Luckman, 1966: Gergen, 1982, 1990, 1994, 1998; Burr, 1995; Coperrider & Srivastva, 1987) suggests that individual and organizational reality is constructed through social exchange and interaction.  This perspective takes the position that conversation and relational practices are the primary medium through which sense making occurs.  For example, Gergen (1999) asserts that social constructionism is reflective inquiry, or a form of investigation that helps one to reflect critically and appreciatively on one’s condition, traditions, institutions, and relationships.  Social constructionism is also a way of thinking about the universe and everything in it.   Gergen (1982; 1999) believes if patterns of action are to be changed, one significant means of doing so is through altering forms of discourse and social interaction.  It encourages people to look at the world in a different way and to consider that the things believed to be significant and true might be regarded in a different light by someone looking from another perspective (Danziger, 1997).           

            The implications for organizational change and development are very clear.  If wholeness  is inseparable from social engagements and relationships, if meaning-making occurs through relational (social constructionist) practices, then OD scholar-practitioners must continually strive to transform and improve the way in which people relate to one another particularly in the context of organizational change efforts.  This means exploring new forms of constructionist dialogues, participative approaches, and relational (communal) practices that promote inclusiveness, interpersonal connection, and wholeness (unity, harmony, and integrity).  Social constructionist practices offer an important bridge to understanding and promoting wholeness, particularly in the context of Large Group Interventions by examining and altering the social settings in which social relations take place. If the social constructionist notion that shared constructions and social relations are key to change and transformation, then social settings that are marked by fractured social activity and or oppressive social relations, as in the case of many organizational settings, present troubling developmental barriers (Gergen, 1998). 

            The opportunities for future research regarding wholeness within the context of organizations are considerable.  Varying theoretical and academic perspectives suggest that the “organizational wholeness” or “organizational health” is a phenomenon that is not fully understood and perhaps never will be through detached forms of inquiry. Questions such as:   “What does it take to become whole again?” “How do organizations become whole?” or “How can organizations continuously promote a sense of wholeness?” provoke responses that are both multifaceted and highly complex.  Wholeness surely applies to many levels and in many different dimensions that are not as yet fathomed.  Compelling research possibilities include studying how wholeness is experienced on individual, organizational, and societal levels.  While wholeness exists in and on these various dimensions and levels, most illustrative definitions tend to offer static and superficial descriptions that limit the significance of its meaning for social scientific purposes.  Further work should focus on elucidating new forms of description that further the understanding and presentation of wholeness in more interesting ways that that enlarges the body of knowledge about this topic and the field of Organizational Development in general. 








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