How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Gather together the participants in the Whole-system Planning in a large room, where everyone can work together as equals. The number of people are sufficient to represent all groups, but small enough to discuss matters as a whole. Typically, this ranges from 20 upwards, sometimes to several hundred, although 50 may be a more normal number. It is also important that there are people from all areas who can make serious decisions and take away actions with them.
The format and content may vary significantly, but here is a common framing.
The first day is focused on the past. Delegates tell stories of success and struggles. The older members of the company tell about its beginnings and the 'wild days'. Younger members tell how it was to join more recently. The past is honored and recalled with its full range of emotion, from nostalgia to humor and also to the less comfortable times. Depending on the age of the company, this section may be shorter, but it must not be made too short.
Diversity may be understood from the growth and variation within the company, such as the setup of different divisions, the establishment of overseas organizations, functional groupings and growth from acquisitions.
Attention to the past also can be used to take a view of the culture of the organization, understanding its roots and why it holds its present form.
The next day is focused on the present. The external forces on the organization are explored. Competitors, new legislation, technical changes, environmental effects, the pressures of globalization are all looked at openly. Customers and markets are also considered, with information about how market share is going up or down, how products and services are faring, what customers are saying about the company (quotes and examples are good here). Focus then moves further in, to how the organization is responding to these forces, how it is coping, how it is structured. Strengths and weaknesses are explored, in all departments as well as in the leadership.
A very common concern here is to remove blame, fear, defensiveness and other negative emotions from the scene. Typically this is done with a discussion about this early on. It may also be done as a cathartic exercise, where, when it first appears, it is named and openly discussed.
Culture may also be revisited in the light of the present-day context. Parts may be shown to be as strong and valuable as ever. Other parts may be seen to be as less valuable now, or even a hindrance. There may even be discussion about how the culture has been corrupted from its original purpose.
Finally, on the third day, the focus is on the future. This may well start with a visioning exercise to determine a desired future state. This vision is shared and developed and given local meaning for all involved.
Plans are then built to reach from today to this desirable future. These may start with overall strategic thoughts, developed collaboratively, then broken down into more localized plans that are discussed in smaller groups.
Blocks on this path are identified and discussed, seeking a way over, under, around or through them. Risks are also explored, with effective ways of reducing the risk or preparation to handle them planned as appropriate.
Finally, the management structure for how the changes will be assured is identified, for example with a regular re-convening of key members of this group and perhaps less frequent full conferences to re-synchronize and re-plan as needed.
An organization that includes many diverse and powerful sub-groups uses a Whole-system Planning conference to bring these people together to understand one another and build the main bones of a plan to realign the organization around current and future realities.
The Whole-system Planning approach is particularly useful for collaborative change settings where you want to engage a large audience in actively planning for the future and then taking forward those actions.
Celebrating the past can seem like a waste of time, but it has several benefits. First, it is an excellent socializing process. It brings people together in a common frame. It also plays strongly to older members of the group, many of whom may have strong social, if not political, influence. When they feel recognized, people from this group who may resist are far more likely to now collaborate. It is also an easy beginning to presage the increasingly hard work beyond. Having invested in this, people will already feel a part of the change. This activity also tends to show how everyone is intimately connected in many ways, and that any one individual cannot hide or sit back whilst others take the heat.
A focus on the present identifies the current issues from which there is no escape. It highlights the inescapable burning platform which forces people to contemplate change. It also identifies those things which are good and which must be kept.
Of course not all plans may be created in detail, but the overall shape can be built together. In particular, where there are interdependencies, having everyone in the same room lets you quickly and easily walk across to another table to negotiate and agree how you will work together.
There are a number of variants on the principle of Whole-system Planning, including 'Search Conference', 'Future Search' and 'Real-time Strategic Change'.