Large Group Development Day


This article describes the structure, planning, what happened and the outcomes of a development day for a large administration department. This should interest you because:

  • It led to significant change and improvements in morale.
  • It required only two days of consultancy time.
  • Eighty people were actively and intimately involved.
  • It was cost effective and fun
  • Managers were effectively trained as facilitators and helped on the day
  • Working groups met and produced ideas for improvements two years after the event.
  • Many improvement ideas were put into practice
  • There was a clear theoretical base to the approach

The authors are the external consultant, Nick Heap, and the training manager of the organisation. Each has contributed his perspective on the event, its outcomes and the lessons we learned.


The organisation is a large public sector Laboratory doing scientific research. The Administration Department includes all the staff that are not scientists or senior managers. There was a history of poor understanding between the scientists and administrators with each stereotyping the other. This led to poor morale in the administrators and complaints from the scientists. Co-ordination between different parts of the admin. department was also poor. The workload was increasing too. These pressures led to the decision to try to motivate staff and involve them in creating solutions to these issues for themselves. Time and money was scarce so it needed to be a very cost-effective solution.

The development day


The Head of Admin. delegated the management of this work to the Personnel and Training Managers. They decided, with the consultant, to take the whole Department off the site for a day’s development. This would give everyone a shared experience and be economical on consultant time. As up to ninety people could be involved, we needed some members of staff to help with the process of the day. 


We discussed the purpose and outline design of the training with the Section Managers. They agreed to help as facilitators of the working groups. The consultant ran a brief introduction to facilitating. The group of managers identified issues that they thought were important to the Admin. group. The consultant and each manager then took turns facilitating a discussion of each issue. The group and consultant discussed the process of each discussion. This helped people to concentrate on listening, managing the time fairly and avoiding being defensive. A Handout, Guidance for Facilitators, see below, summarised these ideas.

The Programme


Welcome by manager-background and purpose of day

Purpose “To find ways of making the admin. organisation better so we can improve the quality of service to our customers”

The consultant described his role for day and the supportive atmosphere required for effective communication.


Warm up exercise/group forming


Allocate facilitators to groups by a random process. (The facilitators take a number)


Brief the department on the role of facilitator, which is to help the process by ensuring everyone listens and everyone has a turn


In groups, participants share their thoughts informally. Each person has a turn.

What is working well in the admin. group?

Who are your clients? What do they want?

How could things be better or different?

What could you do to make them better or different?




Groups continue, summarise three most important points (areas for change) on a chart


Collect up the most important points from each group and display them to everyone.


Form pairs across the groups

Discuss (equal time) the data above and decide which is personally most important and you would most like to contribute to.


Put each key issue on a separate flip chart and display them in the room.




Form task groups to tackle each issue on the flip chart. People work on the issues they would like to contribute to. Break up larger groups. A section manager leads each group.


Task groups meet




All listen to brief reports from the task groups.


All discuss “What have we learned?” and “What next?”

Comments from the floor

Comments from facilitators

Comments from the manager

1630 Depart 

Facilities Required

This design required an area where people could sit ‘cinema style’ and listen to brief talks but also have considerable empty space so people could move about and mingle without falling over chairs. The participants could easily move their chairs into circles for small group work.

In each small group there was flip chart paper, an easel, and a couple of pens. It was important for the managers to reassure the staff that the project was a genuine and positive attempt to make things better.

Guidance for Facilitators


  • When running groups, you will often have the unexpected to deal with.
  • Start with positive things “What is working well?”
  • Explain again the background to the task in hand and your involvement so far. People are often anxious about new situations.
  • Keep an eye on the time and make sure everyone has a chance to contribute before time is up.
  • If possible, give people equal time.
  • Put your own ideas in the pot at some stage, but don’t defend them. This relaxes people; they may otherwise feel judged.
  • If in doubt, listen. When you listen, look at the person speaking.
  • Summarise at intervals what the group and individuals are saying.
  • Try to get people to share their views and opinions rather than debate specific issues.
  • Don’t get into arguments even if you disagree with a point of view.
  • You can discuss serious topics lightly so a little humour helps.
  • When people find participating difficult and show it, it is probably not the facilitator’s fault.
  • The reason is often in the past and a simple acknowledgement and warm attention will often help.
  • Say “You seem to finding today a bit difficult, can I help?” Then just listen.
  • Your feelings are often a guide to what is going on in the group. It is useful to ask how people are feeling if you suddenly feel uncomfortable. It is probably a simple thing that you can easily fix.
  • Remember that, however it appears, people, including you, are always doing the best they can so blaming is not helpful.


The design of the day follows the general principles described below. These principles help with the structure and the way the management of the event. Participants must work on the issues they want to work on and be treated with respect if it is to work.

What are the conditions under which people learn best?

People learn best when they feel safe and supported. This happens when they know what to expect, that the risks are moderate and the plan of the event is clear. A collaborative climate makes it easier to share thoughts and feelings than a competitive one. Clearly people will be more motivated to learn if the event meets their needs.

Some design principles and practical implications


  • Congruence

The presenter of an event should practice what he/she preaches. If teaching the value of listening and support, it is particularly important to listen to and support the students. If we want people to express their feelings openly, our modelling of this will be more important than anything we say.

  • Trust building

You have to build a trusting and growthful learning atmosphere. Clear rules about confidentiality and feedback build trust. Then people know what will happen to the Information they reveal. People usually find it much easier to trust one person than a group.

  • Clear purposes

The purpose of the event and the individual activities and exercises must be clear to all those involved. If the purpose is unclear people will be confused, uncommitted and fear manipulation.

  • Emphasise the positive

It is more useful to discover how to do things right than how to do things wrong. The information is also more acceptable. Most people do not get enough positive feedback and respond very well when they get some. The training and exercises work best when there is no right answer.

  • Create ownership

A person acts on ideas best when they come from him/her, then his/her peers and lastly from a trainer. Therefore, avoid the role of content expert if possible and concentrate on facilitating the process.

  • A complete process.

Any training event should be considered as a whole. How people learn about the event and why they are going on it will influence their commitment to learning. Similarly, think how people leave the event and to ensuring the organisation encourages them to put their learning into practice. If they do not put it into practice then, from the organisation’s point of view, the work is a waste of effort.

  • Be client centred

People value ideas they discover for themselves. They like to learn in individual ways too and work on issues and subjects that are important to them. The task of the trainer is to respond to those needs flexibly and individually. This is easier in very small groups.

What issues did people work on and with what results?


  • Customer relations
  • Handbook of Administration Services
  • Improving communication between Admin. Division groups
  • Improving upwards and downwards communication
  • On the job training
  • PC training.

Task groups discussed the above. Each consisted of six people from different levels in the hierarchy. A middle manager led them. They met at the away day and several times after it. Each group had one issue to examine. The Administration Management Group decided the terms of reference. The groups produced proposals that they presented to the management group. Commitment was high and every task group member attended this presentation. The management accepted many recommendations, which the department then carried out. Some highlights were:

  • Multi-skilling in the Personnel section
  • Very successful PC Training
  • Introduction of a staff photo ID card for all facility users
  • All the staff of Admin. Division did customer care training
  • Staff produced a Guide to Admin. Services.

People are listening to each other and working together better. This is helping them cope with change more positively.

What would we do differently?

The most senior admin. manager delegated the management of the exercise to his senior staff. This made it hard for him to own it and accept some recommendations from more junior staff. Although the consultant anticipated this might happen, he could have been more forceful in seeking his direct involvement. The work would have been more effective if the scientists, who were the customers of the Department’s services, had taken part. We had to start where we had commitment rather than an unattainable ideal position.

Points for trainers


  • Plan to enjoy the day. You can discuss serious topics light-heartedly.
  • Take time to plan the day carefully.
  • Work with the managers as their commitment is crucial.
  • If difficulties arise face them, don’t fudge.
  • Always look for win/win solutions.
  • Encourage people to listen to each other. Show them how by listening carefully yourself!
  • Check that the recorders in each group can write legibly on a flip chart.


  • Don’t expect your plans to work out perfectly. Accept the outcome being good enough.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick