BOWLING GREEN STATE UNIVERSITY


Dr. Steven Cady

Dr. Steven Cady

BGSU conference explores resolving large-scale, difficult problems

While most people would say they want change—in their organizations and communities, their schools, their health care, their government—they don’t often act on their desire because they don’t know where to begin. In response to that universal need, BGSU will be the site of a groundbreaking event March 22 and 23 when the Nexus for Change conference is held on campus (www.nexusforchange.org).

As host of the first-time gathering of leaders, activists, practitioners and scholars from around the world, the University hopes to actually be the nexus for change—both in the emerging discipline of large-scale change and in the development of new methods for addressing critical needs and opportunities of the 21st century. “It’s a rare opportunity to be part of a field-configuring event,” says organizer Dr. Steven Cady, management. Cady is also the co-author, with Peggy Holman and Tom Devane, of The Change Handbook.

“Working on our own, as valuable as that might be, we will never have the impact that working in concert on a large, movement-level scale might have,” said author Peter Block, author of Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used and a partner in the Designed Learning training company. “This conference holds the possibility of clarifying what we are learning and creating transformation in a way we have not yet imagined.”

More than 300 people have registered so far to attend the two-day conference, which will be held primarily in the Bowen-Thompson Student Union. Coming from the United States, Ireland, Japan and other countries in Europe and South America, they include many of the “method masters” of the 61 approaches covered in the recently released Change Handbook, plus many others dedicated to organizing to solve local and global problems.

One participant, coming from Armenia, wrote that he hopes to leave the conference with useful ways to bring about change in his country. “The idea of addressing large-scale change can be daunting,” said Cady. “But what these methods do is demystify the process and provide concrete ways to make it happen.”

While myriad methods are being used successfully for large-scale or large-group or whole-system change, there has never been a unifying name for the body of work, nor an objective, scholar-based approach to studying and evaluating the methods, he said. “Leaders, activists, practitioners and scholars interested in these approaches don’t usually talk to one another,” he explained. “At the Nexus conference, we are getting everyone together in one room to explore possibilities that are greater than we can individually imagine.” Conference attendees will collaborate to arrive at a common language and articulate a platform for their work.

The methods shape the discussion
The concept of the conference reflects two common practices of successful methods for engaging whole organizations and communities: getting high involvement from participants and taking a systemic approach to change. “It’s pretty straightforward. People support and defend that which they help to create,” Cady said. “Here is the question for leaders—who will you involve in the conversation? This is important because those who craft a picture and plan for the future are the ones who will end up getting it done. If leaders are the ones figuring it all out … well, the implementation will likely end up on their personal to-do list. I think today’s leaders are looking for something different. They are looking to involve more and more people in a way that creates inspired action. These methods provide the roadmap.”

The agenda for the event is somewhat unconventional: the methods are the bases for the conference design. Because it is expected to be fast-paced and idea-oriented, in order to capture all that is being expressed, “visual recorders” will create murals to represent ideas, conversations and comments to intensify participants’ attention to and memory of the proceedings. Technology will also be used to both record and stream the event for greater sharing.

In preparation for the conference, more than 100 people participated Feb. 26 in an online and phone-in “fishbowl” to discuss the methods and their foundations, and explore whether this emerging field has the potential to become a legitimate discipline. Moderated by Dr. Heinz Bulmahn, vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate College, the seven experts and callers began the conversation. Go to www.nexusforchange.org to listen to the podcast, review the chat log, read the blog and see the visual recording of the event.

Choosing the right method
In planning The Change Handbook, Cady and his co-authors issued a request for proposals and then chose the methods to be included from more than 100 submissions, applying a rigorous set of eight criteria.

The methods they included are from such diverse areas as urban planning and organization development to the applied arts and online technology. For example, there are new approaches such as Community Weaving, used to create social support networks, and long-established methods such as Future Search, which concentrates on bringing the right people together for an intensive study of a situation with a focus on finding common ground under complex conditions. These approaches alone have been used effectively to provide outreach from Seattle to Texas for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and by such corporate giants as Ikea and national agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration.

Cady has significant experience working with organizations and communities that want to institute large-scale change. In northwest Ohio, for example, he has been guiding a two-year Catholic School Initiative to help the Toledo diocese reverse declining enrollment in its 89 schools, bringing 450 people together in November 2005 to design their common future. “This event set the stage for us to include more people in reviving our schools,” recalled Superintendent Jack Altenburger. The schools are now making progress toward their shared goals, he said. “We couldn’t have done it without him because we didn’t know where to start. This has given us a process, a direction and a way to proceed.”

Similarly, Cady has worked with the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio on several projects, from deciding how to allocate funds from a levy to revamping its strategic plan. “We’re a network,” said Michael Kahle, director of planning and program development. “Steve’s approach is basically consensus building in a civilized manner. He brings all the stakeholders together, and it’s a very intensive process,” said Kahle, adding that Cady’s approach “has become practice for us.”

An emerging field
The conference also represents the first step toward “legitimizing the field,” Cady said. “Universities can provide a safe, unbiased place to leverage these approaches to change.” With their scholar-based approach, they also “apply a ‘level playing field’ for practitioners to strengthen the ability of the methods to influence worldwide change. Scholars can be objective and ask the tough questions about how and why these methods work,” he said.

Others share that hope. “I’d like to begin a serious conversation that includes both practitioners and academic researchers about how to conduct significant research on the large-group methods—research that has the capacity both to contribute to academic theorizing and the methods themselves,” said Dr. Jean Bartunek, the Robert A. and Evelyn J. Ferris Chair of Organization Studies at Boston College.

Bulmahn, who has witnessed the inception of new disciplines and has had extensive experience in the development of new academic programs, said, “There would need to be an alliance between the practitioners and the academics to assess the methods and to form a disciplinary background. A discipline needs to develop a body of knowledge and a fundamental literature based on research and, as in any other field, the results need to be able to be replicated.”

Likening it to the development of the interdisciplinary field of neuroscience 25 years ago, Bulmahn added, “When you make changes like these, faculty have to be able to get engaged in the exploration without being maligned. The intellectual community needs to take a look and see if there’s something to this. The conference will be the forum for that to take place.”

Cady would like BGSU to become the catalyst for that exploration. He emphasizes that the Nexus conference is about the “power of perspectives. This conference is a convergence of leaders, activists, practitioners and scholars who have a passion for leveraging the power of these methods to transform whole organizations and communities.”

March 12, 2007