Jack Martin Leith hosting a Knowledge Café at European Sharing on Systems Thinking, Prague, Czech Republic

Are you are facing a challenge that looks something like this?

  • High levels of complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty are present.
  • There are multiple stakeholders, each with a unique perspective and agenda.
  • There is no agreement about the fundamental nature of the issue, and there is no common language for discussing it.
  • The desired outcome is disputed, unclear or unknown.
  • New ways of thinking, working and relating are prerequisites for success.
  • Immediate action is called for.

If this is the kind of challenge you’re looking at, a generative intervention may be the most effective response.

A generative intervention is a judiciously designed and skilfully orchestrated set of actions taken by members of a stakeholder system in order to bring forth a desired state of affairs, such that maximum value is generated for customers, other stakeholders, and wider society.

The intervention commences with a one-day or two-day co‑creation conference, and continues with a programme of collaborative action designed by conference participants.

Generative intervention map
+ Some examples from my casebook

Shell Learning Centre

Shell pecten
The challenge When Adam Lomas was head of the Shell Learning Centre, he wanted to confront mounting discontent arising from a top-level decision to move the organization from Noordwijderhout into a purpose-built facility at Rijswijk, close to The Hague.
Map showing location of Noordwijderhout and Rijswijk
The intervention A one-day co-creation conference in which all staff members participated. They redefined their collective purpose, created the outline of a new strategy for the centre, and elected members of an ad hoc team mandated to flesh out the strategy with further input from the wider organization and in close collaboration with Adam Lomas.
The conference played a vital part in the engagement process and provided an opportunity for managers and staff to voice their concerns, helping me to understand the needs of the organization and enabling staff to express their needs and contribute their ideas.
Adam Lomas

Adam Lomas, former Head of Global Learning, Shell International, now Partner, Castor and Partners, Cyprus.

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Dogs Trust

Dogs Trust logo logo

The challenge Dogs Trust is the UK’s largest dog welfare charity. Its former CEO, Clarissa Baldwin CBE, penned the charity’s well-known slogan, A dog is for life, not just for Christmas. Dogs Trust managers had become aware of new rabies-type diseases appearing in continental Europe, and wanted to address the increasing threat of such diseases crossing the English Channel and infecting dogs that might then pass the disease on to humans.

The intervention Dogs Trust convened a one-day co‑creation conference with 100 participants drawn from all relevant stakeholder groups. The participants spent the morning pooling information, and over the course of the afternoon developed broad-brush plans for tackling the threat.

Dogs Trust website

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McCain Foods

McCain Foods logo

The challenge McCain Foods needed to conceive, develop and launch a new potato-based product in record time.

The intervention A three-stage co-creation event taking place over 36 hours. Stage 1 A hundred consumers organized themselves into breakout groups where they discussed their likes and dislikes about chosen aspects of potato products. McCain people witnessed these discussions as silent observers. Stage 2 Twenty-five McCain employees drawn from across the business worked in pairs to develop product concepts inspired by reports from the witnesses. Some of these concepts can be seen in the photograph. Stage 3 The consumers returned to review the most promising product ideas and suggest improvements.

McCain Foods — concepts
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NHS: Central Sussex Partnership Programme

NHS logo
The challenge Led by their respective chief executives, the senior leadership teams at NHS trusts in Brighton and Haywards Heath decided to integrate 35 services, including the hospitals’ emergency departments. The challenge facing the leadership teams was finding a way to manage the integration successfully, with minimum disruption and distress.

The intervention A series of four large-scale co-creation conferences, the first of which was created specifically for members of a strident and well-organized “Save Our A&E” campaign. This ran in the catchment area of the Haywards Heath hospital and was heavily supported by the Mid Sussex Times newspaper. The other three gatherings were open to all stakeholders. The eventual outcome of the Central Sussex Partnership Programme was a formal merger of the two trusts to create Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust.

Following the publication of the proposals for discussion, there have been a series of public meetings in the area. On Thursday 31 August this year, I attended a large meeting in the Clare Hall at Haywards Heath. Nearly 700 people were present and officials of the central Sussex partnership programme had a good opportunity, in reasonably dignified and certainly attentive surroundings, to state their case. It is safe to say that their proposals met with universal opposition, much of it extremely well informed.

Sir Nicholas Soames, Member of Parliament for Mid Sussex, speaking at Westminster Hall, Houses of Parliament (view source)
See also New group to discuss hospital plans, on The Argus website.
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Numico logo
Numico conference workgroup

One of the conference workgroups in action

The challenge Royal Numico N.V. is the specialist baby food and clinical nutrition subsidiary of Groupe Danone. Some time before the business was acquired by Danone, its CEO made a strategic decision to simplify its work practices.

The intervention A one day co-creation conference held in Marrakesh, Morocco, where 250 senior Numico managers from around the world worked in small diverse groups to identify complicated work practices and devise ways of simplifying them.

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Head4Arts logo

The challenge A consortium of local government agencies had won the contract to establish and operate a new community arts organization, which was to be based at Llanhilleth Miners Institute, near Ebbw Vale in south Wales. The leaders of the consortium were faced with two challenges: what to call the new organization, and how to ensure that the Year 1 objectives set out in its contract would be accomplished successfully.

The intervention A one-day co-creation conference in which a diverse group of stakeholders developed a plan for meeting its contractual obligations and explored a range of possible names for the organization before settling on Head4Arts.

Head4Arts website

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Shell GameChanger

Shell GameChanger logo
The challenge When oil is brought from the sub-surface, it has to be separated from the water that is produced alongside the oil, and this water has to be disposed of. As it contains heavy metals and other contaminants, the water is usually treated as waste and pumped back down the hole. Shell managers were determined to find a way of converting this waste water into some kind of value.
Shell GameChanger — Greening the Desert workshop process

Greening the Desert: process map
The intervention A two-day co-creation conference convened by Shell’s GameChanger and Water-to-Value teams, where academics from Imperial College (UK) and Wageningen University (Netherlands) devised imaginative ways of creating value from the waste water. The most promising ideas were taken forward with funding and support provided by the GameChanger team.

Read about Shell GameChanger

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GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare

GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare logo

The challenge The senior management team had spent a year developing a new R&D strategy, and wanted to ensure it would be implemented successfully. A major concern was the need for effective collaboration between the two research laboratories, which were located 166 miles from each other.

The intervention A one-day co-creation conference in which staff from the two sites discussed the issues, explored possibilities and developed plans for sustained collaborative action.

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Petroleum Development Oman

Petroleum Development Oman logo

The challenge Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) is the major oil exploration and production company in the Sultanate of Oman, and Royal Dutch Shell owns 34% of the business. The PDO exploration team had discovered substantial oil deposits in a rare type of rock with high porosity but low permeability [read about these distinctions], and needed to determine if the oil could be produced in a way that would be commercially viable.

The intervention A two-day co-creation conference where a large and diverse group of scientists and engineers from PDO and Shell explored the issues, investigated different ways of producing the oil, and devised a plan that they presented to Oman’s Minister for Oil and Gas before the close of the conference.

Large group interventions reinvented for today’s complex problems and insurmountable opportunities

Billie T. Alban and Barbara Benedict Bunker introduced the term large group interventions in their book Large Group Interventions: Engaging the Whole System for Rapid Change, published in 1996.

It refers to a range of collaborative, event-led approaches to complex problem solving and whole systems change, such as Search Conferences, Future Search, Open Space Technology, Real Time Strategic Change, and Whole-Scale™ Change.

I used the large group interventions descriptor for more than two decades in my consulting work with businesses and non-profits (view bio | view list of publications), but I now talk about generative intervention, for the following reasons:

Ends, not means.
Large group places emphasis on the size of the gathering, whereas generative points to the ultimate purpose of the intervention.

Size is not the issue.
What matters is not the size of the group, but having the right people in the room, no matter how few or how many there may be.

Some popular books on specific large group intervention methods

Freedom from the constraints of prescriptive methods.
A large group intervention is often built on the back of a step-by-step method that was conceived in the 1980s or 1990s, whereas a generative intervention is custom-designed using the principles and practices of collaborative groupwork. (See Note 1)

Not a one-off event, but an end-to-end programme.
A large group intervention is often a one-off event, after which participants are left to fend for themselves. A generative intervention, on the other hand, sets in motion an orchestrated programme of collaborative work that may include workshops, action learning programmes, individual and team coaching sessions, internal communication activities, and digital collaboration tools. (See Note 1)

Beyond the realm of organization development.
Most large group methods are rooted in the field of organization development. As a domain of theory and practice, generative intervention borrows concepts and methods from fields beyond organization development — notably innovation, creative problem solving, design thinking, lean startup, Agile, visual sensemaking, and digital workplace.

Why seek to generate maximum value for customers, other stakeholders, and wider society?

  • More value is created for the enterprise as a natural consequence.
  • Innovation and change endeavours produce the desired results quickly, sidestepping ‘resistance’ and minimising the risk of unwanted consequences.
  • The viability of the enterprise is strengthened and its long-term future is more secure.
  • People give of their best, because their work has meaning and purpose.
  • The best talent is attracted and retained.
  • The reputation of the enterprise is enhanced.
  • A distinctive and respected corporate brand arises.
  • Competitive advantage is boosted.
  • Sustainability and corporate social responsibility activities are no longer handled by specialist functions. They are an intrinsic part of everyone’s day to day work.
  • There is a greater likelihood of increased shareholder value.
I provide a full range of services in the field of generative intervention: planning, design, production, facilitation, training, and coaching.

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