The Large-Scale Event as a Tool for Jump-Starting Change

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The term “large-scale event” is used here to describe a set of planning techniques for groups ranging in size from 35 to 2,000 people. These techniques allow sometimes quite heterogeneous groups to come to a common understanding of a problem or situation in which all present have an interest and develop a common vision of a preferred future and commit to first steps toward achieving that future.

There are several methodologies that fit within the large-scale event designation. These vary widely in terms of their usefulness in any particular situation. (The method detailed in the following article, page 36, is called future search.)
These events vary in length. Future search requires two to three days. One-day events that use components of large-scale processes are successful with smaller groups, where the issues to be addressed are of a more contained nature, or where there is an effective change process already underway.

Large-scale events are useful in situations in which:

You wish to chart a course and pursue it without the usual gap in time between planning decisions and implementation. In today’s rapidly shifting work, both planning and implementation must be faster paced without any reductions in quality of thinking or outcomes. Use of the large-scale event format ensures that many of those who will be involved in the implementation of a plan are present during planning and decision-making. The result is that fewer people will have to be sold on the course of action chosen and participants walk away with an understanding of and commitment to implementation tasks.

You want to create an understanding and appreciation of the whole system. The term “system” generically means a complex body of interdependent parts; in this context, the parts we work with are human and the system might be a community, an organization, or a profession. Because large-scale events depend on the involvement of a whole system—or at least a representative and influential microcosm—participants have a rare chance to view one situation from many different vantage points. This 360-degree orientation provides everyone with more information as well as with a sense of where vital information can be obtained. Each participant adds to the wisdom of the room and people leave not only with a common strategy but also with a better sense of how to work effectively with one another.

You wish to achieve alignment in a complex system. A common problem even in the most active and successful organizations is the disconnection of various units from one another and the lack of a sense of unified purpose or goals. This disconnect can lead to, among other things, people working at cross-purposes or without the benefit of the resources potentially available to them.

Large-scale events are ideal for generating centrally unifying ideas and strategies. This in turn creates alignment as people strive to aid in and build on each other’s accomplishments and begin to measure their own effectiveness through measuring the system’s progress toward its overall goals.

You need to engage the productive energy of your stakeholders. Trying to engage people in a strategy that has already been developed is far more difficult than keeping people engaged in a strategy in which they have had a voice. Large-scale events can act as a relatively speedy catalyst to help people to take responsibility and hold themselves accountable, to see connections and consistently ask the next questions toward improving a situation. They are also experiential training grounds; our participatory theories and tools are easily explained to event participants as we use them.

You want to encourage continuing dialogue and open communication among the components of the system. Large-scale events are structured around encouraging dialogue among people who don’t usually talk to one another. People are seated and work with others with whom they have had little previous contact. Additionally, we push beyond cynicisms and quick responses to conversations with give and take where participants feel and in fact are respected. This carries forward into new and improved relationships and discussion styles in the workplace, particularly when it is supported as a follow-up measure.

There are many situations in which large-scale events have proved successful including:

  • community planning,
  • planning collaborative strategies,
  • strategic planning or direction setting in organizations ranging from small community-based nonprofits to major multinational corporations,
  • initiating shifts in organizational culture and behavior,
  • redesigning work processes,
  • strategy development, and
  • exploration or development of strategic alliances.

In situations we have observed we have almost always seen remarkable outcomes both in terms of the substance of what was addressed and in the improvement of working relationships.

After you contract with a consultant or facilitator, you will set up a “design” or “event planning” team. This team should be a microcosm of the system. The design team will develop a purpose statement for the event, talk though the design (and in some cases work on the design elements), identify invitees, and begin to talk though logistical questions. At least two months should be allocated for planning a two to three-day event although three months or more may be called for depending on the group, the task to be accomplished, and the amount of preparatory work needed.

Holman, Peggy and Tom Devane. 1999. The Change Handbook: Group Methods for Shaping the Future. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.