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strategy and business
 / Winter 2006 / Issue 45(originally published by Booz & Company)


Masters of the Breakthrough Moment

Blankets and Sandpaper
On an icy weekend in February 2006, the Seashores drive up to Bethel to conduct what will turn out to be a pivotal session at the 50-year-old NTL site, which the board has decided to sell so that it can “get out of managing real estate,” as Edie puts it. Twenty-two Fielding Ph.D. candidates have flown in from around the country to present case studies on challenges they face. Most are senior executives eager to develop their group skills so they can have a greater impact on their organizations. Charlie is leading the weekend’s session with two other Fielding faculty members.

Before the participants break into small groups, Charlie tells them: “Some of you will be blankets, providing comfort and support to others, and some of you will be sandpaper, irritants that lead the group to breakthroughs. Group process is basically a means for applying both blankets and sandpaper to a given situation.”

Calvin, a real estate developer from Boston, presents the first case study. He starts by noting that his greatest challenge is getting people to listen when he talks. Then he goes to a flip chart and starts to diagram his company. As he delves into its intricacies, he turns away from the group. After a few minutes of this, two participants begin to whisper restlessly between themselves. A third joins in. Calvin soldiers on.

At last Connie, a university teacher from Wisconsin, breaks in abruptly. “Excuse me, but would Calvin mind facing his audience? I was interested in what he was saying, but now I’m lost in the details.”

There’s a moment of silence. Someone asks why Connie feels entitled to encroach on Calvin’s time. Other participants agree that she is being disruptive. Connie tries to justify herself.

Charlie watches intently. It’s as if he can see the social forces that Professor Lewin described — cohesion, disruption, and challenge — playing themselves out with predictable regularity. Finally, he asks, “What happened here with Connie?”

“She broke in,” someone volunteers.

“And how did that change the dynamic?” Charlie asks.

“It pulled the attention away from Calvin.”

“Does anyone remember what preceded Connie speaking up?”

There’s a pause. Someone recalls that people had begun chatting. One of the chatters then admits that he had stopped listening to Calvin. “But,” he adds, “I didn’t make a big deal of it like Connie.”

Charlie asks the group to consider the role that Calvin played in provoking inattention. Calvin says, “I don’t think I played any role. I was just presenting my case.”

“You say you have trouble getting people to listen. That’s what happened here. People stopped listening, especially when you turned your back on them.”

“That’s like at work. I get absorbed in the details and I lose people. Then I feel bad because no one listens.”

“So you do have an impact when you’re talking to a group. It’s just not the impact you want to have.”

Such breakthrough moments occur with regularity as the sessions continue throughout the weekend, with Charlie performing a variety of interventions. He plays the role of one participant’s boss, and coaches another to deliver the eulogy at his mother’s funeral. By the end of the weekend, the 22 participants have become increasingly sophisticated at spotting their own evasions, more likely to jump in and say, “I see what’s happening here!” and more intentional in assuming a role within a group.

It’s not possible to tell, of course, whether these insights and epiphanies will lead to permanent changes after the participants go home. Observers such as Charlie and Edie’s old colleague Chris Argyris, an NTL veteran who later joined the faculty of Harvard Business School, have criticized the disciplines of OD, group dynamics, and diversity on the grounds that the breakthroughs and epiphanies fade away; they do not change behavior in any lasting way. Will Calvin, returning to the pressures of his job, be able to squarely face those he is seeking to influence? Will Patrick, the naval hospital commander from Johns Hopkins University, draw upon what he learned to become more patient with his direct reports? And will Deborah, his colleague, confront conflict rather than trying to avoid it? Or will they all simply retreat into habitual patterns when they are once again immersed in their office routines?

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  1. Gary Heil, Warren Bennis, and Deborah C. Stephens, Douglas McGregor, Revisited: Managing the Human Side of the Enterprise (Wiley, 2000): Overview and update of McGregor’s classic work on human beings as interdependent co-contributors.
  2. Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change (Doubleday, 1996): Includes a more detailed history of NTL and the Seashores’ role in it.
  3. Charles N. Seashore, Edith Whitfield Seashore, and Gerald M. Weinberg, What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback (Bingham House, 1997): The Seashores’ guide to conducting difficult conversations in a way that does not offend, provoke, confuse, blame, or overwhelm other people.
  4. Marvin Weisbord, Productive Workplaces Revisited: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century (Pfeiffer, 2004): The history of organizational development, tied directly to the realities of the high-performance workplace.
  5. National Training Laboratories Web site, Overview of the institute’s history and current courses offered in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
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