A Parable on Organization Change: Reducing Cycle Time with Large-Scale Technology

Matt M. Starcevich, Ph. D.

(For individual use only, not to be reproduced or used in any way without permission)

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A review of our new direction will be held at 2:00 PM, in the executive conference room. Reflecting on the memo you wonder what it will be this year. In previous years the “new direction” has been total quality, then re-engineering, then the team concept. Each has been announced with a flurry and then atrophied with the passage of time. The rumor is that this year the theme will be empowerment. As the internal Organization Change Consultant the Division President has asked you to sit in on this meeting to “see if there is a better way to bridge the gap between the new vision and its efficient implementation”.

The meeting with the top ten people in the division is like Deja vu. All the heads are nodding approval at the appropriate pronouncements. The ensuing discussion is finger pointing and displacement of the inability to implement past changes to other departments, the union, changing market forces, or a mystical “them”. After the meeting you approach the President. Well Preston, what do you think? One of your finest speeches you reply. This has to go beyond just a speech, I am counting on you to develop a strategy to get empowerment implement, be ready to review your approach with me by next week at this time.

What can we do differently this time. In the past you scheduled training sessions and unit meetings starting at top and systematically moving down the organization. This didn’t work, by the time you were finished there still remained a major disconnect between departments, the top of the house and the various levels of employees. It was like communicating between Styrofoam cups connected by pieces of string. On one end was top management at the other ends were the various departments and units of the organization. No ladders were built or actions defined that would engage the energy of the entire organization in the change effort, a major disconnect. This time it had to be different. What to do wasn’t entirely clear. Putting on your consultant hat you decided to call Lucy Sheldon Truback (LST), a colleague who had touted their organizations “new” approach to implementing organization change. The meeting took place the next day.

Lucy is straight forward; what I want to describe requires a major paradigm shift in how you and your management think about change. Unless you’re ready to entertain letting go of some of your past beliefs about change there is really no need to continue.

Somewhat taken aback by Lucy’s boldness I stuttered that I was frustrated with our past efforts and needed some help.

Okay then let’s start by watching ten minutes of video from a two day meeting that was designed using Large-Scale Technology. As I watched the video three things were in stark contrast to other meetings I had observed. First, there must have been 200 people from all levels of the organization, in attendance. Second, rather than listening to well-orchestrated speeches all 200 were interacting in small work groups: discussing, reporting out, questioning, strategizing, and reaching consensus. Third, the level of energy and commitment was infectious; they were collectively creating their organization’s future. Stop the video, I shouted, that’s revolutionary, how did you ever pull that off?

Lucy calmly stated that before we talk about how let’s discuss the concept of Large-Scale Technology (LST) because herein lies the crux of the paradigm shift. With my full attention she started. It’s not revolutionary, LST has it’s roots in the 1960’s with Richard Bechard and was refined by Ron Lippitt’s work throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s.(footnote). Prior to this change was implemented with separate organization units and top down driven. LST broke this paradigm by thinking about the entire system. At the heart of it was getting “the whole system into the room” and “all the arrows pointed in the same direction.”

That sounds reasonable, I stated, but why is this so important? On a flip chart Lucy wrote:

D x V x F > R

This formula that Bechard attributes to David Gleicher, might help. If the product of dissatisfaction (D) with the present situation, a vision (V) of what is possible, and first steps (F) toward reaching the vision are greater than the resistance to change (R), change will occur. If anyone (D, V, or F) is zero, resistance will not be overcome. A critical mass of the organization needs to share a common understanding and agreement on each of these three elements for organization wide change to occur. The implementation of change stumbles if people are not clear on what changes are needed, do not feel ownership or responsibility-it’s somebody else’s fault, or over a long timeline becomes lost in the crises of running the day-to-day business. LST involves the whole system providing for increased information flow, system focus and quicker response. It replaces silo thinking, turf-related competition, and finger pointing with open communication and ongoing collaborative efforts.

Meekly I mention that the model for change that I embrace focuses on helping individuals “unfreeze” and then change. In hearing these words I realized how slow and out of step with the rate of change that was expected in today’s environment this was. My individual and small group focus didn’t create an energized critical mass in the organization. The need for more cross-functional relationship, a collaborative, comprehensive plan for the company’s future had been staring me in the face. Thinking about change in a total system context was very different yet I could see the huge potential in decreased implementation time, and increased commitment throughout the organization. Top down versus “all in the room” certainly would be a paradigm shift for me and top management. Would they relinquish control for the greater benefits?

Seeing my puzzled look, Lucy must have read my mind saying, let’s look at how all this is translated into a practical approach that your management will see as clearly beneficial over others they have tried.

Great! Start with basics and go slow, I want to take everything down. Reaching in her credenza Lucy retrieved a report where the meeting I had observed was outlined. This takes it from beginning to end, by reviewing this you will have most of your questions answered. On the first page of the report was a quote that is now on the wall of my office:

A common data base is critical. Seeing the world through the eyes of each other enables large groups of people to find common ground.

As I re read the quote Lucy commented that a common data base is the driving factor in LST and the resulting meeting design. Rather than talk about LST in the abstract you will get a better appreciation for how the key design principles were utilized. Turning to section one we dissected the critical design and actual events of the meeting.

Design Team. The change process must be owned by the entire organization. It is not just the consultant’s or top management’s. To accomplish this a team that mirrored the organization was defined. In our case this was 15 people: external and internal consultants, line managers and front-line employees. Our task was to figure out what needed to be discussed, how it should be discussed, and when it should be discussed. The consultants were our “process” experts, the employees the “content” experts.

What if top management doesn’t want to work through a design team? Best to forget it states Lucy. You’ll be pushing change up hill without the reality check and resources that a microcosm of the organization can provide. Our work began six weeks prior to the actual meeting.

Data. Either through interviews or more formal data gathering methods the design team needs a collective understanding of how the stakeholders define the relevant issues facing the organization. For our organization the stakeholders in the change included: top management, employees, union leaders, middle managers, and customers.

Was this the design team’s “common data base”? Right, said Lucy.

Meeting Plan. Developing the plan is not done in a vacuum; it is regularly checked with those outside the design team, especially the leadership group. Lucy handed me a copy of the two day meeting design stating that this meeting focused on our strategic plan. LST can be applied to any number of changes from total quality to work redesign. See meeting design outlined at the end of this article.

Isn’t this threatening since you are asking each participant to challenge the paradigms they bring to the meeting? Lucy just smiled and said participants must leave the meeting seeing the world differently, they must have some sort of paradigm shift based on this global data base.

Lucy, I have one other question, why is there not more teaching, presentation of concepts or focus on problem solving? This meeting deals with real time issues, through the process of grappling with these issues they learn the skills of listening and consensus building. Secondly, one of the most significant conclusions of Lippitt (footnote) was comparing problem solving groups with groups using a “preferred future” approach to planning. The conclusion: the preferred futuring group had higher energy, ownership of the situation, and developed more innovative, future-oriented goals and plans than the problem solving groups.

Lucy must have sensed how overwhelming this all sounded. Rather than let up she continued, there are a few other things you need to consider.

Evaluate. At the end of the first day, written evaluations were collected from participants With these evaluations the design team and leadership team suggested changes for day two. The evaluations and modified agenda were summarized by one of the consultants and shared with the total group as the first event the following day. This process reinforces collaboration and the belief that all activities add to the common data base.

Meeting participants. For us it was possible to “get everyone in the same room”. Preston, since you work a shift operation this may not be possible. My strong recommendation is to include as many people as possible rather than excluding them based on traditional practices from the past. My reaction was that that would be a hard sell. Lucy just smiled and said, that’s part of the paradigm shift for top management. Limiting involvement to a small team who does the planning for the entire organization is what has made lasting change so difficult in the past. Letting go of that approach is the start to changing the whole system.

The Facilitators. During the meeting the objective was to create a learning environment by managing the energy of the group. To achieve this we varied the teams people participated in, sometimes along functional lines at others as vertical slices of the organization. We also varied the type of activities. Lastly, the facilitators have to check their egos at the door. It is the groups meeting, not theirs.

Follow-up. I’m sure you know this Preston so I’ll just mention that six months after the initial meeting there needs to be at least a one day follow up meeting. This is when the group can review what action plans have been implemented or not, is there a need to update and redefine our collective direction and what new commitments are needed to make the change a reality.

Looking over my notes what struck me was the significance of the change. Lucy, from your experience what does it take to make it work. Under the formula Lucy wrote on the flip chart three things:

  1. Committed leadership
  2. Good business opportunities
  3. Energized people

I heard a consultant give a talk on LST and these three conditions seemed to make sense to me.

Somewhat overwhelmed, I exclaimed that my upcoming meeting with the President would be a good test for the first condition. Lucy cautioned, since this approach may run counter to some widely held belief don’t expect the idea to sell itself. I know it fits with your values and beliefs but you have to be prepared to visualize the meeting, sell the benefits, handle the inevitable resistance of risking something new and fight for the critical design principles that will contribute to LST.

Can I borrow your video tape? Sure, she smiled, and good luck! Oh by the way if your President wants to talk our President about this approach she would be more than willing to spend the time.


Two years have passed since this discussion. The President, surrounded by bright young speech writers is preparing for the annual new direction meeting. Rumors are that creating a learning organization will be the theme. Preston is quite happy selling shooters at Senior Frogs in Mazatlán. Lucy started a successful consulting firm LST, Inc. and moved from Minneapolis to Dallas. Moral, old paradigms never dies the just lose their value, it is better to sell shooters than be shot at, and LST if given a chance can make a difference.


Beckhard, R. (1969). Organization Development: Strategies and Models. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Beckhard, R.(1975). Strategies for large system change. In K. Benne, L. Bradford, J. Gibb, R. Lippitt (Eds.), Laboratory method of changing and learning. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

Beckhard, R. & Harris, R. (1987). Organization transitions. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Bunker, Barbara Benedict and Alban, Billie T. (Eds.) (1992). The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. Special Issue: Large Group Interventions. Sage Periodicals Press. Volume 28, Number 4.

Dannemiller Tyson Associates, Inc. (1987). Interactive Strategic Planning: A Consultant’s Guide. Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Lippitt, R. (1983). Future before you plan. In R. A. Ritvo & A. G. Sargent (Eds.). The NTL Manager Handbook. Arlington, VA: NTL Institute.

Spenser, Laura J. (1989). Winning Through Participation: Meeting the Challenge of Corporate change with the Technology of Participation. Kendall/Hunt Publishing. Dubuque, Iowa.

Weisbord, Marvin R. (1987). Productive Workplaces: Organizing and Managing for Dignity, Meaning, and Community. Josey-Bass, Inc. San Francisco.



  1. Introductions, Agenda and Meeting Outcomes.
    • Create a shared understanding.
    • Create a shared response to our key issues.
    • Develop shared action plans.
    • Develop shared commitment.
  2. Top Management’s Perspective. (Note: events a-c are the same for each “perspective”. To conserve space these will not be re-written).
    • A short (20 minute presentation) followed by an open forum.
    • Open forum. Each table will discuss and record on their easels:

– What did we hear?

– What are our reactions?

– What clarifying questions do we have, (each table can only have 1 question)?

    • Clarifying exercise
  1. The Employees Perspective (a panel of employees).
  2. The Front-Line Supervisors Perspective (a panel of supervisors).
  3. The Customers Perspective (a panel of customers).
  4. Organization Diagnosis. Each table selects a different topic i.e., Communications or Training and brainstorms three lists: Over the past year everything you are glad about, sad about, and mad about.
  5. Evaluation-Day One. How did today go for you: Highs? Lows? What advice do you have for tomorrow?
  6. Evening session: Design and Top Management Team. Read and act on the evaluations for day one.


  1. Feedback for Day One Evaluations.
  2. Emerging Themes from Organization Diagnosis-Top Management’s Perspective.
  3. Preferred Futuring Exercise. Each individual records as many ideas for the Emerging Themes that would answer this question: It is now December 20, 1996. We are pleased and proud of how effectively we have addressed these themes. What do we see happening? What are people doing that lets us know we’ve addressed the theme?
  4. Organization-Wide Action Planning. For each Emerging Theme a group is charged to develop: things happening which will help us move toward our preferred future, things happening which will make it more difficult to achieve our preferred future, and agree on a specific, realistic action plan that we will propose to the larger group.
  5. Voting on proposed action plans.
  6. Back Home Action Planning. Intact work groups answer: What have we heard that impacts our group? What can we commit to do differently? What help will we need from others?
  7. Wrap-Up/Evaluation/Close.