A Year of Leading Change with The Metropolitan Council

global learning organization change Jan 28, 2019


Author: Gisela Wendling


Recently The Grove engaged in a yearlong project with the Metropolitan Council (Met Council or Council) in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, focused on building internal process leadership capability. The Metropolitan Council is a regional body that oversees all of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s wastewater, metropolitan transit, housing projects, and regional-planning efforts.

One of the Met Council’s major goals is to work more systemically and collaboratively, not only internally but also regionally and with the communities they serve. The leader of the Environmental Services division, for example, is working toward an integrated and environmentally sustainable water management approach by 2050—a vision which is referred to as One Water.

The Council asked The Grove to help it develop the internal capability to support these efforts by offering a yearlong Leading Change Program for 20 of its emerging leaders from across the organization. This program presented an opportunity for David Sibbet and me to build on years of providing extended, action-research and cohort-based practitioner development, going back to David’s roots with Coro and mine directing a practitioner-oriented masters program in Organization Development. In addition, The Grove has a track record of helping organizations dedicated to creating healthier communities and healthier environments.

David and I used our new Seven Challenges of Change Model as the content backbone for the Leading Change Program. We write about this framework in our book Visual Consulting: Designing & Leading Change, which was released in the Autumn 2018. It is written for consultants (both internal and external), facilitators and process leaders.



Designing Capability Development for Impact

For the program to have real impact, it needed not just to help participants develop their capabilities but also to help the organization work on the substantive challenges it faced. Thus the program would be designed to support real change interventions as part of the learning activities. This would require the organization’s full support.

To launch the project, we:


  • Set up an initial design team to clarify the program objectives and overall format. This included a review of current strategic initiatives to determine how to situate the program alongside these initiatives. The design team, along with its senior executives, identified change challenges from across the divisions that would serve as action-learning projects for teams of participants.
  • Encouraged our client to pull together an advisory council comprised of leaders of the participating divisions. Involving them was essential to create and sustain buy-in. They provided early input on the design, and we clarified what was needed from them to support the participants from their divisions over the duration of the program.
  • Selected senior leaders to function as sponsors for the participants’ change projects.


Another key to the program’s success was including the client’s project manager on the design team, in addition to her being an active participant in the program. Her dual role enabled us to gauge the effectiveness of the participants’ learning process, stay closely involved with related organizational activities and dynamics, quickly address issues as they arose, and create smooth logistical support for the program.


Program Format and Content

The Leading Change Program combined six in-person, three-day long sessions with virtual learning support via self-paced learning activities and regular video-conferencing with the project teams. The Global Learning & Exchange Network (GLEN) online platform provided virtual learning space within which participants harvested and shared program learnings.

All of the sessions followed a similar format. Time was given to introduce new content using short visual presentations, experiential learning techniques, group dialogue and personal-reflection activities. Topics included understanding systemic approaches to change, learning about different intervention methods, conducting systemic assessments, contracting for change, creating alignment across stakeholders, designing and graphically facilitating small- and large-group meetings, working with organizational narratives and more.

As part of the cohort process, pairs of participants led mini-workshops on topics such as decision models, facilitating dialogue to generate alignment, design of work processes, understanding wicked problems, and using ritual-like activities to stabilize or move change forward. These mini-workshops gave participants a low-risk environment to apply their newly gained design and facilitation skills.



Below is a graphic of the full sweep of the Leading Change Program, which we shared with the program’s sponsors at our final session.



Change Projects

Teams tackled one of four action-learning/change projects. Teams were comprised from across divisions, supporting a level of exposure to the overall organization that is rarely available. These change projects were carefully scoped and supported to begin making a difference right away. The Seven Challenges of Change Model identified the phases of change through which participants would move with their projects. Regular project status updates provided opportunities to share about the work’s challenges and opportunities and receive hands-on coaching by David and me, sparking rich program learning for all.

For instance, one of the Council’s goals was to strengthen its capability to design and lead cross-sector collaborative engagement processes. As a result, one of the teams worked on initiating a regional multi-year planning process including a range of institutions and communities.



As the cohort evolved, David and I created opportunities for participants to reflect on and integrate what they were learning, and to harvest their learnings about what it means to be an emerging leader in the organization. After all, the program was called “Leading Change.” In the end, participants not only developed their skills as process and change leaders but also created visible impact by moving several critical projects forward, readily applying what they were learning.

Each program participant received a certificate of completion from us as well as from Meridian University. In the future, Meridian University is able to provide graduate-level academic credit for participants.

A few months after the program’s completion, we heard from two of the organizational leaders. The general manager of the Environmental Services division, Leisa Thompson, wrote to us, “We are in the midst of some very positive and significant changes in the organization that I attribute to the influence of the leading-change cohort.” Sara Smith, operations manager with Environmental Services, adds, “In all of their work, (Leading Change program participants) are being viewed as rock stars when it comes to successfully supporting cultural change throughout the organization. It is really exciting to witness.”



The successful outcome of this change-leadership program is encouraging us to offer it again. We are looking to provide this program to another organization or network, or as a public offering. Please get in touch with us if you would like to explore further.

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