navbar 4Resource papers in action research

Gaining involvement and participation
in a change program

Bob Dick and Tim Dalmau
<> and <>


This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July.  For details email Bob Dick  or

...  in which some issues which are important at the beginning of a change program are addressed; attention is given to ways of involving people in organisational change programs



Suppose that you wished to bring about change, and that you wished it to be participative.  Then the first problem you would face is this.  Unless you have a lot of experience you are likely to underestimate -- grossly underestimate -- how long it will take to involve people.

We know a manager of a small company who hoped to convert it to a more democratic organisation.  His dream was that all decisions, including those about policy, would be taken by all the employees.  He imagined that it would happen overnight.  All he had to do, he thought, was to announce it.

As it happens, he was eventually successful in this.  But it took him eight years or so to achieve it.

One of us has been trying to coordinate a university class where class members would design and run the class.  There have been partial and increasing successes over several years.  The actuality almost matched the vision -- in the tenth year.

You will not be surprised, therefore, that we attach some importance to the mechanisms used to involve people in participation.

Preparatory activities are crucially important.  In addressing them, we cover three issues.  The first, which reveals our assumptions about the nature of change, provides a context.  The second deals with the important issue of shared ideas and support from the top.  The third describes mechanisms to increase participation.


On the nature of change

In the 1930's, change agents like Kurt Lewin had a profound influence on the theory and practice of change in organisations.  We presume this arose because people recognised that a transition was taking place or had already occurred.  In the theories of social scientists like Lewin, people recognised a better map than the one they had been using.

Before the 1930's the usual assumption was that most change was something like a hiccup.  One did one's best to recover from it and get back to normal.  Usually, change was not something one embraced with enthusiasm.  It happened every so often.  One coped with it, adjusted to it, and hoped for an early return to normal.  The hoped-for outcome was restoration of the status quo.

Lewin instituted a three-stage model of change: unfreeze, change, refreeze.  In more detail:

Unfreeze: prepare the organisation for change.

Change: plan and implement the change.

Refreeze: consolidate the organisation in its new mode of operation.

This model still implies that change is sporadic.  Punctuated equilibrium is an apt description taken from a very different field of study.  Mostly the situation is stable.  Every now and then there arises a need for planned change.  One does not wait until change is forced upon the organisation.  One anticipates, and then swings into a planning process.  The outcome is a new status quo.

In the 1990's and into the next century, we suspect, we need a different model again.  Before one change has stabilised the next change is upon us.  You may have noticed the growth in management development courses entitled "Managing change" and "The manager as consultant".

Lewin's models (and techniques: he was responsible for force field analysis) serve us very well.  But it appears that now we are part of a world with very different dynamics.  It is one where change in organisations is normal, and each of us has to manage change on a week by week basis as the need arises.  In a situation of continuous change the status quo no longer exists.

This has several implications.  One of the most important is that change can no longer be the responsibility of senior management or of a consultant.  Increasingly, change is becoming the responsibility of all of us.  Participative management is, among other things, a response to this.  So is the growth of a consulting style which involves clients more directly in the process of change as well as its content. 

Furthermore, when it comes to organisational change, small is often beautiful.  For example there is a report from the Swedish Employers' Federation 2 summarising the experience gleaned from 500 shop floor projects.  Most successful job reforms were low key and used a jargon-free business-as-usual approach.  There were no blaring trumpets or waving flags.  Although this is over two decades old now, we can find no reason to abandon its findings.

Consequently, you will find that we favour processes that start low-key and build up slowly -- softly, softly rather than the big parade!

One of the recurring debates amongst change practitioners has been about where to start.  The three most commonly recommended strategies are self explanatory: top down; bottom up; and a combination of these.  We propose a more flexible compromise derived partly from the literature on rural innovation.  Start with the enthusiasts.

You may be interested in exploring this analogy.  Take a rubber band and lay it down on a flat surface.  Choose one of the two narrow ends (most rubber bands are long and narrow) as the front.  Push gently at the trailing end of the rubber band.  You will find that the band distorts, but then recovers its original shape as soon as you remove the pressure.  Now place a finger in the loop at the leading end and draw it gently forward.  The whole rubber band moves.

Within any organisation there are people and teams who are searching for ways of moving forward.  They are like the leading edge of the rubber band.  Help them identify the barriers to movement, and they move.  In doing so they set up pressures which encourage others to move too, particularly if the organisation rewards innovation and achievement.

There are other people and teams who, for whatever reason, don't wish to move.  They will move for as long as you pressure them to do so.  They will stop moving as soon as the pressure is taken off.

Change often involves inventing solutions to problems or new paths to goals.  Innovation is more likely to come from the enthusiasts than from the resisters.  The most valuable starting point for organisational improvement is often with those who are enthusiastic for change.

Nor need these be confined to one area of the organisation.  There is a lot to be said for change which happens in several parts of an organisation at once.  Often top management is nervous about this.  They fear that proliferating changes will get out of control, leaving them unable to do their job of providing the strategic guidance for the organisation.  (Senior management sometimes opposes participation in other aspects of organisational life for similar reasons.)

The remedy is to define the limits within which change can take place.

Consider a situation, for example, where working parties are being used as the main vehicle for planning and implementing change.  A "slice group" (see later) which includes senior management representation has responsibility for helping working parties to establish themselves, and then coordinating their efforts.  The briefing for each working party may then include the following conditions.

  • Rather than specify in detail what the working group must or must not do, it is assumed that the working party has freedom within prescribed limits.  These limits are clear and negotiable, and include constraints on time, money and other resources. 
  • The working party may assume that any change may be implemented provided it is satisfactory to all those directly affected, lies within the specified limits, and does not adversely affect the resources used or goals achieved by any person or group. 

This may be regarded as a systems view of change.  Think of the unit or team or division which is the subject of the change as a social system.  Its links with other parts of the organisation consist of inputs (primarily resources and information) and outputs (generally resources and information).  By definition, if the inputs and outputs are not adversely affected, then the change does not have an adverse affect on the rest of the organisation.  If those directly affected by the change find it an advantage, then this advantage has been obtained without costs elsewhere.


Top support

An early stage in organisational interventions is diagnosis.  Even before that, however, there are some other issues to be taken into account.

Firstly, it helps immensely if the consultant has in mind a working model of how organisations function in general.  A working model is, if you like, a quasi-theoretical map of organisational behaviour.  (By quasi-theoretical we mean that its scientific accuracy is not an issue; all it has to do is generate useful strategies.)

Such a map allows her to locate and understand various behaviour and phenomena with which she comes into contact.  It helps her to identify what steps, actions or broad approaches are needed at any point in time.  It also provides a common language within which those involved can talk about change.  3

Choosing a suitable map is not an easy task.  There are many and varied models of organisational behaviour.  You can choose those we have presented in the document from which this is an extract, or in our Network '87 paper, Politics, conflict and culture.  4

And there are numerous other models.  Two sources we have found useful are... 

  • Zemke's book on diagnostic strategies, Figuring things out5
  • Dexter Dunphy's Organisational change by choice6

You will also find that an open systems view of organisations and social systems underlies many of the other models and ideas we use.  But the particular model may be less important than having a model which works.  If you find a model which fits both your intuitions and your organisation's functioning, use it.

The next important consideration is that of getting organisational support for diagnosis and subsequent intervention.  This means starting at the top: chief executive officer, departmental secretary, management group, state director, division head, senior and middle managers, and so on...  senior personnel generally.

Note that this does not prevent you working with an enthusiastic first line supervisor.  After all, she is the top of a work team.  Provided you remain within the "freedom within limits" that she has, no one need be concerned.  Even then, however, you will find it useful to clear the activity with her immediate superior.  The limits are otherwise hard to define.

When starting a diagnosis you may not know how the problem or problems are perceived organisationally.  Nor do you know who or what are involved.  Hence it may be important to start at the top of the organisation and work down.

This approach has two main benefits.  It allows you to generate a picture of the main concerns, dreams, hopes and fears of those who ultimately exercise a significant influence over the organisation's direction and life.  It also begins the process of generating top support for the changes which will ensue.

You can ask senior personnel to identify gaps between their goals and the organisation's performance.  The priorities of the gaps can then be decided.  The use of discussion groups is often appropriate at this stage.  They can be used to gain management's impression of needs, problems and causes.

We suggest that this big-picture generation is a very important step.  We also recognise that for some public sector organisations it is often not contemplated or undertaken by internal consultants.  Reasons vary; they sometimes involve phrases such as "Oh, I couldn't do that" or "I already know this.  It's all documented in the corporate plan", or the like.  These two statements identify two common blocks to undertaking this step.

Firstly, few staff development officers or similar internal consultants seek face-to-face interviews with the very senior managers.  It is not usual practice, particularly not in many of the larger departments.  And when you do seek such meetings, they often generate fantasies and assumptions about your hidden motives. 

We suggest that the best way to deal with such reactions is to make your motives as explicit as possible to all people involved.  Further resources for dealing with this issue can be found in the literature of managing upwards (see also Learning to communicate  7 pp.  190-203).

Secondly, documents are more often than not quite unreliable sources for the type of information you need.  Your intention is to determine the hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears and vision of the top executives.  You don't often find this in such documents as corporate plans, needs analysis reports, policy proposals or the like.  They are sources of rational information.

Part of this step involves appreciating more non-rational and intuitive dimensions.  Such information can be attained only through conversation and experience.  Done skilfully, conversation can often be used to lift material into the awareness of the people you are talking to.  One of the most useful resources that we have used in order to obtain information through conversation and experience with members of an organisation is that of the meta-model.

A simple way of explaining the meta-model is this...  The words and sentences that people use to describe something are a reflection of the underlying memory or imagination.  Those words and sentences can therefore be used to identify the distortions or omissions in the person's mental image of the person or event.  Questioning can obtain the information which repairs the distortion or fills in (or at least identifies) the omission. 

The meta-model is an extremely useful tool when used with sufficient attention to rapport-building to gain rational information.  (A very good summary document with explanation on the meta-model is found within the book Magic demystified8 An extremely succinct summary is found in the Appendix of Leslie Cameron-Bandler's book Solutions9 A more thorough understanding of the power and use of the meta-model can be found in the two volume work The structure of magic by Bandler and Grinder.  10

Most of the literature on the meta-model suggests ways of recognising specific distortions, and the questions which address them.  Another approach is to form a mental image for yourself of what a person is saying.  Can you imagine who is doing what with what materials or objects to whom?  If there are pieces of this you can't imagine from the information given, you can then ask questions to fill the gaps.  The important point is that the questions fill the gap for the person you're talking to.

The recent literature on organisational culture is replete with various examples of ways and means of gathering the more non-rational and intuitive information available in organisations.  Some of these ways are described in our summary of Card 3 Interventions, in the book from which this is extracted. 

Further resources are also available.  One of the best summaries of how to uncover the more non-rational and intuitive dimensions of information in organisations in contained in Chapter 5 of Organisational culture and leadership, by Ed Schein.  11

There is also some extremely useful information about the methodologies and complexities surrounding studying and gaining this sort of information in Organisational culture by Peter Frost and others, 12 particularly pages 197-276. 

In some documents you can glimpse or infer something different by reading between the lines.  There are organisational qualities which can be described in words.  There are other qualities which have more to do with organisational style, the extent of a shared belief in the organisation, and other even less tangible characteristics which are not so easily described.  These are seldom captured clearly in a document, even reading between the lines.  They are almost never describable in words.  (We have talked about this in our monographs Diagnostic model 13 and Politics, conflict and culture14

It is also useful at this point to generate with senior management a picture of how the organisation might run if it worked as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The usual practice is to follow this broad top-level organisational analysis with a slightly more detailed operational analysis.  To do this you sit down with workers and first and second line supervisors.  They will be able to tell you where and how problems occur in the day-to-day operations of the office, section, branch, and the like.

This two-tiered approach should give you an understanding of the critical gaps between desired and actual performance at the group and organisation level.  It should also create a general sense of support and expectation for the more detailed situation analysis which is to follow.

A word of caution, for there is a serious trap for novices here.  One can very easily create unduly high expectations from people through such an initial problem diagnosis and consultation exercise.  Change takes longer than people expect.  Expectations are therefore almost never met.  You should take great pains to emphasise that the exploration is just that.  It is not a promise that all problems and needs identified will be addressed.  This is one of the virtues of participation.  The people affected know how long change takes only when they are the ones who are directly involved in managing it.

A further caution.  In effect we argue that change, especially change which impacts on the wider culture of the organisation, is very difficult without support from the top.  We take nothing back from this.  However, we would be most reluctant to have you think that your hands are tied without support from the top.  We work with enthusiasts wherever we can find them; there is always something that can be done with them by staying inside their freedom within limits.


Generating involvement and further support

Now we will deal with two topics: setting up representative groups (often known as slice groups); and using external consultants.

Slice groups

It has been said (we don't remember by whom) that people don't resist change, they resist being changed.  Whilst something of an overstatement, it does identify one of the strengths of participation: people have more commitment to their own plans, particularly when they implement them themselves.  The first stage in participative change is therefore to identify those who are affected, and involve them in the change program.

For large-scale programs the easiest way to gain participation is to set up some form of slice group.  Here are two different ways of doing this.

1.  Election

Call a meeting of all members of the organisation or that part of it with which you are to be involved.  Identify the different functions at the workface (for example, technical, administrative, ...).  Describe the election to be held.  Suggest electing people who have the capacity to represent the organisation as a whole, not just their own function.

Workface members of each function then elect someone to represent them on the slice group.  The next level of the organisation elects one representative.  The level above that elects another representative, but from a different function than that providing the member at the level below.  This continues until all levels (or a sufficient number of levels) are represented.

Known as a diagonal slice, this arrangement ensures that each person in the organisation is twice represented.  Choose any cell in the diagram, and imagine a person in that cell.  Her direct representative is a person at her level elected by her.  She is also represented by someone at a different level within her function, elected by someone else.

This is a common method.  And at management levels it is a plausible arrangement.  In our experience it gives the smallest sample that can provide reasonable representation for the whole organisation.

However, there is reason to doubt that managers are able to represent rank-and-file workers in their function.  Further, the workface is typically where most people are.  You could say that a diagonal slice overrepresents management.  Our preference, if it does not make the group too unwieldy, is to modify it slightly by having all functions at the workface represented to give an L-shaped "slice".  Even where numbers are an issue we prefer to increase the workface representation.

2.  Indirect representation

Put together a small working party consisting of opinion leaders who know the organisation well, but who collectively are representative of the organisation.  Ask them to compile a slice group of approximately the composition which election would give.

It is important that the slice group includes someone with real decision making power in the organisation.  This can be either the chief executive officer, or someone with direct access to her, and real authority.  It is also important that the boundaries to the slice group's decision making are clearly defined.

To prevent the slice group from becoming an alternative elite within the organisation, urge it not to involve itself directly in the implementation of any change.  Instead, its tasks are as follows.

  • To collect information to decide which changes are needed. 
  • To secure high-level support for the desired changes.  To liaise with senior management in supplementing the ground work that the consultant has already laid down (as described previously). 
  • To set up small representative working parties to plan and implement these changes, and to brief these working parties on the limits to what they can do. 
  • To build its own members' ability to facilitate change, for example through attending suitable training programs, liaising with other organisations or other parts of the same organisation about their change programs, or using external consultants. 
  • To provide the necessary resources (training, time, consulting help, etc.) to working parties; this may also include employing and briefing outside consultants for specialised projects. 
  • To keep all members of the organisation informed about the changes.  In this respect it is better if the slice group confines most of its reports to actual accomplishments, as there is otherwise a risk of arousing expectations which cannot be met.  It is of course important that the planned changes be checked thoroughly with those directly affected, but this is probably better done by the working party. 
  • To coordinate the activities of the various working parties.  This is most easily done by including a member of the slice group on each working party. 
  • To handle the necessary liaison with outside bodies when working parties are unable to do so. 
  • To wind up the working parties when their goals have been achieved. 
  • To obtain a slow rotation of members through the slice group so that they do not slowly become an elite.  Members of the working parties will often be suitable members for the slice group. 

Care should be taken to involve any relevant union representatives in a slice group along with people from both worker, first-line and senior management groupings.

In recent times we have come to see the advantage, in some circumstances, of electing a small slice group and giving them power to co-opt a few others as the need arises.  It may happen from time to time that a slice group needs expertise different to that held by the type of people likely to be elected by their peers.


Tandem arrangements

In any substantial or difficult program there are advantages to using an external consultant and an internal consultant (or line manager) in tandem.

By external consultant we mean someone external to the unit or department; she need not be from outside the service.  An external consultant usually is granted more influence and credibility than someone from within the organisation.  She also brings an outside perspective and usually wider experience.

The internal consultant or line manager, on the other hand, brings more knowledge of the local situation, including politics.  An internal consultant may have deeper experience in some respects.

There is an added advantage which applies both to tandem arrangements and slice groups.  The members of the slice group and the internal people working in tandem with the external consultant are being helped to develop consulting skills themselves.  In other words, knowledge of the processes and techniques of change management are being embedded into the organisation.  As the rate and complexity of change increases, this is a valuable way of acquiring the skills and experience to deal with it.



  1. Modified from Chapter 3, Getting started, from Tim Dalmau, Bob Dick and Phill Boas, Getting to change, Canberra: Department of Industrial Relations.  Copyright (c) 1986, 1988, 1994 Dalmau & Associates Pty.  Ltd., Wights MountainRoad, Samford, Qld.  4520, Australia.  (Unfortunately the document is now out of print.)  

    The document was written for a different purpose, and so emphasises corporate change.  We provided training for many of the early users of this material, and provided overviews for them of much of the cited literature.  We have therefore drawn more on our own literature than we would otherwise have done.  The document was also written for the public sector, and the language and terminology reflects this.  Many of the same issues apply in private sector or even in community change.back ]
  2. Swedish Employers' Federation (1970) Job reform in Sweden.  Stockholm: Swedish Employers' Federation.back ]
  3. We have heard attributed to Elliot Jacques the view that change does not persist without a common language being developed.  We agree.back ]
  4. Tim Dalmau and Bob Dick (1991), Politics, conflict and culture: a journey into complexity.  Chapel Hill, Qld: Interchange.back ]
  5. Zemke, R.  et al., (1982) Figuring things out.  Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1982.back ]
  6. Dexter Dunphy (1981) Organisational change by choice.  Sydney: McGraw-Hill Australia, 1981.back ]
  7. Bob Dick (1990) Learning to communicate: activities, skills, techniques, models.  St Lucia: Interchange and University of Queensland Bookshop.back ]
  8. Byron Lewis and Frank Pucelik (1990) Magic of NLP demystified: a pragmatic guide to communication and change.  Portland, Or.: Metamorphous Press.back ]
  9. Leslie Cameron-Bandler (1985) Solutions: practical and effective antidotes for sexual and relationship problems.  San Rafael, Ca.: FuturePace.back ]
  10. Richard Bandler and John Grinder (1976) The structure of magic, 2 volumes.  Palo Alto, Ca.: Science and Behaviour Books.back ]
  11. Edgar H.  Schein, Organisational culture and leadership: a dynamic view.  San Francisco, Ca.: Jossey-Bass.back ]
  12. Peter Frost et.  al.  eds.  (1985) Organisational culture.  Beverly Hilly: Sage.back ]
  13. Tim Dalmau and Bob Dick (1990) A diagnostic model for selecting interventions for community and organisational change, 2nd edition.  Chapel Hill, Qld.: Interchange.back ]
  14. See note 4 above.  [ back ]



Copyright (c) Bob Dick and Tim Dalmau 1995-1999.  This document may be copied if it is not included in documents sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are included.

This document can be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  and Dalmau, T.  (1997) Gaining involvement and participation [On line].
Available at




navbar 4  

Maintained by
Bob Dick; this version 1.05w last revised 20000102

A text version is available at URL