The “field” of large group intervention methods needs to be understood and used more by communications and engagement teams. The approaches are designed to bring about change in whole systems by working with a microcosm of the whole system in the room, and the meeting structures typically run from 1 – 3 days with upwards of 60-80 participants or more. Approaches include Future Search, Search Conference, Real Time Strategic Change and others.

When we are designing and facilitating engaging leadership and employee conferences we might not be looking for change like this, but what is useful about them are some of the tools and approaches used in the methodology:

  • Open Space (developed by Harrison Owen – the structure that underpins Unconferences) can be used to get issues and breakouts driven by participants; it can form part of a larger event or the event itself
  • World Café in which people rotate around issues and share learning is another problem exploration approach; again can be part of the whole
  • Graphic facilitation to capture discussions and provide a record of the meeting is now ubiquitous
  • Learning maps (the precursor to the Big Picture/Big Conversation) as a tool to engage large groups in thinking through how to apply strategy could be a useful approach for planning education and implementation around most change initiatives
  • Customer journey mapping, visioning, storyboarding, and other visualisation methods can help generate energy and insight and support action planning
  • Polarity Management (see the book of the same name from Barry Johnson) helps groups work through difficult implementation issues such as control vs. autonomy, centralise vs. decentralise, focus on individual vs. team

There is a huge range of these techniques which help create events that are completely unlike traditional conferences but which also help people get significant work done in a fun and engaging way. What is important is to highligh some principles that underpin large group methods:

  • Clarity on purpose, outcomes, who’s going to be there, process, etc is obviously essential
  • Adopt a systemic perspective – things are the way they are because of the way the system works; change requires changing the system
  • Involve all people who have a stake in the issue at hand in the room
  • Address issues from multiple perspectives to build a better understanding and expose what may be hidden to some participants
  • Recognise that all parties should have an opportunity to influence plans and decisions
  • Share responsibility for decision-making and subsequent implementation amongst affected parties
  • Create communities of action around some common shared purposes

We recently designed and facilitated the conference for 150 members of the HR function at leading engineering business using Open Space, Customer Journey Mapping and team based action planning. We used no tables and no PowerPoint in 2 days and participants rated it the best conference yet. More importantly the large group co-created the HR vision for the business.

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