How to Engage the Whole System in Change

Real-life stories around the key aspects that make Whole Scale Change such a powerful approach

April 26, 2024
7 min read
people sitted in a circle during a workshop

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In today’s rapidly changing world, companies face the challenge of adapting to external conditions with increasing complexity. What kind of framework and approaches are more suitable to help us in this situation?

In our work of supporting organisations of all kinds in their journey of transformations, we have elected Whole Scale Change (WSC) — a methodology with more than 30 years of development and application — as one of our preferred approaches to systemic work-system change, because we trust its rigorous, non-reductionist, open, flexible way of getting people engaged and moving change faster without sacrificing depth.

In this article, we are going to explore some of the key aspects that make WSC so powerful today and lessons learned in real-life stories from the field. The content of this post is based on multiple conversations on this topic we have hosted throughout 2023, involving pioneers and master practitioners like Paul Tolchinsky, within the rhythmic encounters of the Change Playing Meetups.

To know more, keep reading!

Whole Scale Change: why now more than ever?

The current moment presents unprecedented opportunities for implementing WSC. The COVID-19 pandemic and the development of new digital tools have revolutionized how organizations can engage their entire system in change. Moreover, a convergence of methodologies, such as serious games, system thinking, complexity thinking, and group interventions, coupled with technology, has created a fertile ground, offering far greater possibilities than two decades ago when this approach was first developed.

Then, what makes it so special? Unlike traditional models or processes, WSC does not impose change from the outside but allows the whole system to be the protagonist of its own transformation. Moreover, it allows people to finally embrace the complexity they experience daily in their work, instead of minimizing it or trying to simplify it, which often is a natural human reaction but that creates many more problems than it could possibly solve.

“The original version of WSC was called ‘Real Time’ because it is exactly about being in the moment, understanding the multiple realities and the hundreds of different perspectives, and creating solutions on the spot as well as excitingly engaging people. So, it’s very much about emergence and bringing forward what exists in people, in systems and having people see what they weren’t able to see before.” — Paul Tolchinsky

The keys to effective change: what makes WSC effects last over time?

Incredibly, one of the most dismissed truths about transformation processes is that people need to feel engaged in change, rather than having change imposed on them (which often generates resistance). WSC embraces this truth thoroughly and turns it into the key feature of any successful intervention.

One of the principles of WSC, in fact, states that: Ownership and commitment only come from engagement.

“Most of the time that you are talking about is wasted in trying to convince and trying to sell. When WSC was invented, I had a client who said: “I am expected to reduce the cycle time I have and deliver products in half the time. How can you as a psychologist do the same thing with change? How is it any different?” He’s right, if you look at cycle time, most of the cycle time in change management, it’s trying to convince people to change, not asking what it all will be and how it will make it happen. With WSC I know how to make changes embedded faster than any other technology ever.” — Paul Tolchinsky

WSC enables people to become the story of change, providing them with the space, time, and ways to participate actively in the transformation. This sense of ownership empowers individuals and leads to lasting engagement and faster widespread adoption.

When you understand the purpose of change, feel committed to it, and actively participate in its design, you also become energized and willing to make it happen.

Implementing WSC may require more time upfront for organizing and facilitating, but it accelerates the actual implementation due to the collective understanding and commitment generated. This is key because research says that one key variable in the failure of change processes is time, and the success rate is inversionally proportional to the time it takes. For how it is designed, WSC allows to go really deep on all the layers of change — processes, tools, psychology of people — in a relatively short time because of the density of interactions that are allowed in these different diverging and converging rounds.

“Whole Scale Change allows people to be the story of change. It allows the whole system being the change they’re living as opposed to suffering the change, being imposed by either an external party or hierarchy…

Also the rhythm of WSC interventions — the fact that it allows people to come all into a room, with all the excitement and emotions there is, and then later diverging in groups and coming together again — allows people the time for building that story. This changes everything. We are stories, we are human beings so in my experience the real thing is to give people the time, the places, the ways of being that story.” — Stelio Verzera

Transformation Stories: the Power of WSC in Action

paul tolchinsky facilitating a whole scale change session

By giving individuals the opportunity to express their opinions and engage in what they care about, WSC is said to rejuvenate the human system within what, more often than not, has become a bureaucracy. Decision-makers have reported that WSC workshops were more than just work-related activities; they were life experiences that reignited their passion for their work. So, it is a powerful methodology, no doubt about it.

Exactly for this reason, no matter how experienced you are, just reading steps and principles about how it works it’s not enough to really own it, learn it, and learn from it. In hosting many Change Playing Meetups this year we have witnessed how powerful it is to meet with masters and pioneers of this methodology and listen to their real-life stories, imbued with feelings and specific in context. In short, be gifted with the wisdom, tips, and tricks coming from their human walked work experience in applying it.

These are just two small excerpts of two stories told by Paul Tolchinsky in a recent public conversation with Stelio Verzera and Dawna Jones.

“We were doing a large group meeting, shouting down the whole factory to make everyone come and one of the workers refused to sit at the table we have assigned to him and instead sat at the back of the room with a newspaper. I got quite upset about it. “What’s wrong with this guy? Pretty bossy response!” — I thought. I sensed something in my partner and she said “when he’s ready, he will move”.

The first day, he just sat there with his newspaper and during the breaks, he would talk with his friends but he would refuse to participate. At some point in the middle of the second day, I looked at the back of the room and I noticed he was gone.

I thought: oh my God he left! My partner said: no, he’s at his table, because the conversation shifted to something that mattered to him and in that moment he was invested.

I was trying to force him to go there and it would have been the worst possible thing I could do. From that moment on I believed that people engage when they are ready, and they’re not always ready at the same time. In most of those large groups, you can almost experience that moment when it happens, when the shift occurs. At some point in the middle of the day the noise level goes up, people are all around, active, you feel that shift and it’s amazing. You feel it down the spine when you realise: puff it has happened!”

The second story is around this notion of how much wisdom there is in the system — how smart people really are and how you can tap into all that brain power because when you do, it propels you so much faster.

“I had a client who was three years behind the market because they made a strategic bad decision. 200 people working on the wrong thing, and passionately committed to work on the wrong thing. He went to the executive board and he said: “look, we need to adapt, we are out of business if we don’t do something now.”

He proposed WSC, and said: “give me one year, I will have a new plan and I will implement it as a process to recoup our time”.

We engaged 1500 people and, after one meeting, one manager said: “how in 12 years nobody ever asked me for my opinion.” This process is so exciting for me.

They created a new strategy, a new implementation plan, sold the board a 3 hundred million euro worth transformation and in the next 12 months they have implemented it, which included closing location and moving people from one engineering function to another or in multi kind of team. All the wisdom of the system relieves so much under the table. This concept reminded me that no company hires dump people who they are going to do wrong. They hire the best they can find. Why not leverage it? WSC gives them the tools to do that.”

Paul Tolchinsky in conversation with Stelio Verzera and Dawna Jones

How can we meet change in ways that allow thriving within it?

In September 2022 we launched the first Change-Playing Meetup to create a space for all the people interested in exploring more life-enhancing ways of conceiving and managing change transformation inside organizations.

Since then, many more real-life stories, wisdom, questions, and experiences have been shared within this growing and vibrant community. If it resonates with you and you want to be part of it, here are two opportunities for you to dive deeper:

The Change Playbook — a playful, constantly evolving, exploration of the main themes from decades of positive change navigation. You can download it for free here:

Join the next Change Playing Meetup, on February 23rd, 2024, just by registering here.

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If you want to know more, or engage your organization with this approach, please get in touch, here:

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