by Matt Minahan
June, 2002


Using a group to assist in a change process is a good way to develop committed people to the change effort. Here are four different roles that groups can play in a change process, and information on the leadership, membership, staff and consultant support that the groups need.


Research in the behavioral sciences teaches us that people who are engaged in change efforts tend to be more committed and implement them better than people who aren't similarly involved.

The natural response of many smart managers and consultants is to form a group to help with the change process. Often times, the role and membership of the group is not clear, causing additional concern and confusion, ironically, at just the time when the group was formed to reduce concern and confusion. Clarity about the role of the group is needed before a leader is appointed and before members are nominated.

There are at least four (and probably many more) different roles that groups can play in helping to design and implement change programs:

1. Steering groups are typically chartered to make decisions about the course of action for a change program either as:

    • decision bodies to approve specific change proposals such as allocation of space or budget or personnel, review of business processes or systems, manage communications, establish priorities.
    • coordination bodies to manage the boundaries across, and ensure integration among, individual change efforts. They are particularly helpful in assuring that large scale change efforts occurring on several fronts remain true to the original purpose and design principles, and assuring that the changes are coordinated across unit.

Steering groups are typically led by the change leader or a trusted deputy. There is no single philosophy about their membership. Sometimes they are made up of all of the managers in the top team reporting to the change leader. This is particularly useful when there is substantial team development that needs to occur among the top team. Alternatively, steering groups can be made up of a diagonal slice of managers and staff drawn from across the organization, when broader participation and staff development are desired. Steering groups need staff support in order to prepare meeting agendas and to assure that topics covered are significant and critical to the success of the change program. Consulting support can be useful to provide an outside perspective, to help manage the meeting process, and to assure that the behavioral issues that are at the center of the change program are adequately addressed.

2. Advisory groups or sounding boards are chartered to provide a forum where line staff and managers can have a place to speak their minds and provide input to a leader or steering group. They are particularly good for taking the temperature of the organization during a change program and letting management know how the change program is being received and how people are reacting to it. They are also good for testing ideas and gauging reactions to concepts that may seem too far "out of the box," but may have potential benefit to the organization.

Advisory groups or sounding boards are typically led by the change leader or a key deputy. Membership can include key thought leaders from inside the organization, as well as from other organizations from the same sector, or those who have faced similar kinds of problems. Staff support is typically needed for functional issues such as meeting space and materials. Consulting support is helpful when the members don't know each other or do not have a shared sense of being on the same team, and when the level of skills around meeting management or interpersonal communication and confrontation needs to be strengthened.

3. Stakeholder groups have a similar role as advisory groups or sounding boards, but their perspective is quite different. Where sounding boards are typically made up of members within the organization, stakeholder groups are typically made up of members from outside the organization who have a stake in how it operates and how it is organized. Stakeholder groups provide a forum to work through ideas that can affect suppliers, customers, partners, contractors, etc. as the organization is being designed and proposed changes are considered.

Leadership of stakeholder groups typically rests with the change leader or a key associate whose job is to manage relationships with stakeholders. Membership of stakeholder groups can include representatives from among customers or clients, suppliers, well-informed consultants or contractors. Business process expertise is often helpful in stakeholder groups, as is someone from an outside organization who has recently been through a similar type of change project. Staff support is particularly helpful for coordinating meeting times and travel arrangements for participants who are not from within the organization, and for assuring that participants have adequate preparation (materials, briefings, contextual knowledge, security clearances, transportation, hotel arrangements, etc.) to be productive. Consulting help frequently includes meeting planning and facilitation, conduct of interviews, and coaching to the change leader, among others.

4. Design teams do the nitty-gritty work of organization change, including business process mapping, systems design, application of technology to the business process, organization of work, design of jobs, establishing performance metrics, and other necessary tasks.

The actual charter of design teams is sometimes more complex than that, though. In most cases, their official role is to make recommendations to senior managers, and that is certainly the case regarding high-level issues such as organization structure and the design of leadership jobs.

However, much of the work of design teams is often so detailed or specific that senior management is not in a position to make an informed go or no go decision, and so the design team's work is accepted as is. It is in these cases that design teams should be encouraged to interact regularly with advisory groups and sounding boards to provide advice and reactions from people who know the jobs and functions under design.

Design team leaders are often senior staff or middle managers who have some knowledge about the organization and who would benefit from a bigger challenge or broader perspective. Members are often drawn from a diagonal slice of managers and staff who are known to be open to change, creative, knowledgeable about the business and how it operates, and committed to implementing the new design. Staff support typically is around functional needs such as meeting rooms and technology, participants' schedules, coordination of meetings, etc. Consulting help typically includes good skills at keeping a whole-system perspective, business process design skills, work planning, and group process skills.

As you can see, there are many different types of groups, and several different ways in which they can be extremely helpful in supporting an organizational change program. They can be, in and of themselves, a powerful intervention in an organization, in addition to supporting a larger set of change objectives. Clear mandates, expectations, roles, leadership, and membership are key to making the most of groups in organization change projects.


Matt Minahan, EdD is an external consultant and teaches in the business school at Johns Hopkins University. He lives in the Washington DC area. Matt can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.