Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities

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9781605094281: Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities
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Future Search is among the best-established and most effective methods for enabling people to make and implement ambitious plans. It has been used to redesign IKEA’s product pipeline in Sweden, develop an integrated economic development plan in Northern Ireland, and demobilize child soldiers in Southern Sudan. Written by the originators, this book is the most up-to-date account of this powerful change method.

This third edition is completely revised, reorganized, and updated with nine new chapters. It contains new cases and examples, advice on combining Future Search with other methods, and a summary of formal research studies. The chapters on facilitating diversity provide a theory, philosophy, and method for working with any task group.
Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff offer specific guidance for Future Search sponsors, steering committees, participants, and facilitators and new ideas for sustaining action after the Future Search ends. They’ve added striking evidence of Future Search’s efficacy over time, examples of its economic benefits, guidelines for making Future Searches green, and much more. They include a wealth of resources—handouts, sample client workbooks, follow-up methods, and other practical tools.

If you want to do strategic planning, product innovation, quality improvement, organizational restructuring, mergers, or any other major change requiring stakeholder engagement, this book is your guide.

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About the Author:

Marvin Weisbord, an international consultant for more than forty years, is the author of Organizational Diagnosis and Productive Workplaces Revisited and editor and coauthor of Discovering Common Ground.

Sandra Janoff, consultant and psychologist, works with Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, communities, and nonprofits on whole systems transformation.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction
First let us summarize 30 years of experience. The major Benefit of Future Search is transforming a system’s capability for action. You can do that in a few days when you observe our principles. We believe we can save you considerable trial and error if you take advantage of our experience. A bit of management history may help you appreciate why Future Search came into being.
Productive Workplaces (Weisbord, 1987) described how planning methods evolved on two axes: the “who,” from experts to everybody; and the “what,” from problem-solving to whole-systems improvement. A century ago, as the industrial revolution picked up steam, expert problem-solving (e.g., “scientific management”) became the gold standard, surviving to this day as a tarnished relic. after group dynamics was discovered, many adopted participative management when they found how hard it was to implement an expert’s solutions. When “systems thinking” hit the work world in the 1960s, experts rose to new heights, solving—on paper—whole systems of problems at once. By the 1980s it became clear that for progress in a speeded-up world of increasing diversity, nothing less would do than “getting everybody improving whole systems.” This became a central tenet of what people now call “large-group interventions” (see “Learning Curve”).
Productive Workplaces proposed that only “everybody improving whole systems” would prove satisfying in a fast-changing world—satisfying, that is, if you believe that economic results need not be compromised to achieve dignity, meaning, and community. For us Future Search is a learning laboratory for “getting everybody improving whole systems.” The enthusiastic response to this concept—letters, phone calls, requests for help—led to Discovering Common Ground (Weisbord et al., 1992), a work that sought to uncover the principles and the practices common to Effective large-group planning.

Planning methods have evolved on two axes: the “who,” from experts to everybody; and the “what,” from problem-solving to whole-systems improvement.
From Productive Workplaces Revisited (Weisbord, 2004). Used by permission.
We wrote the first detailed description of the FS method in the 1995 edition of this book. In the 2000 edition, we presented the evolving FS model, our experiments with tasks and techniques, and examples from many cultures, where, contrary to conventional wisdom, people were able to get long-lasting action from a single meeting. We also provided a philosophical rationale for “hands-off” facilitating, later elaborated in Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! (Weisbord and Janoff, 2007).
Changes to the Third Edition
This Third Edition, based on input from dozens of FSN members, contains 10 new chapters and five chapters rewritten to reflect new learning. We now tell the FS story with greater confidence, more-diverse examples, and clear-eyed comments from pioneers in cultures everywhere.
Specifically, we have revised the text in the following ways:
 Updated the design with subtle refinements that simplify the flow and improve the output (Chapter 5 and Appendix A)
 Added new cases based on our own and colleagues’ recent experiences in diverse cultures and sectors (Chapter 1)
 Documented the “ripple Effect” of Future Search by showing results sustained in various sectors over many years (Chapter 2)
 Offered specific guidance for FS sponsors, steering committees, participants, funders, and facilitators (Chapter 6)
 Noted several examples of the economic Benefits of Future Search (Chapter 7)
 Added more advice on planning and the use of virtual technologies (Chapters 8 and 9)
 Preserved the emphasis on our core philosophy and theory of facilitating (Chapters 10 and 11)
 Described FS variations and integration with other methods (Chapter 12)
 Incorporated many more examples of how to sustain action with effective follow-up (Chapter 13)
 Interviewed leaders around the world to discover what Future Search means to them (Chapter 14)
 Surveyed research and evaluation studies for formal evidence of what works (Chapter 15)
 Introduced provocative thoughts on why Future Search has crossed so many cultural boundaries (Epilogue)
What Makes Future Search Different?
Future Searches enable organizations and communities to learn more together than any one person can discover alone. Bringing the “whole system into the room” makes feasible a shared encounter with complexity and uncertainty leading to clarity, hope, and action. The key word is shared. When we explore common ground with others, we release creative energy, leading to projects that all value and none can do alone.
Future Search, even three days’ worth, is time efficient. People need not master abstract concepts to do good planning. They need only show up and use the skills, experience, and motivation they already have. We are seeking what people already want to do and never dreamed they could. Rarely do people encounter these key conditions for action all at once. Every meeting thereafter becomes more productive.
When to Hold a Future Search
People use Future Search for three main purposes:
 To create a shared vision and action plan for an organization, network, or community
 To enable all stakeholders to act on common ground and take responsibility for their own plans
 To help people implement an existing vision that they have not acted on together
A Short Overview
The FS design depends on sticking to a set of reliable “conditions for success.” These start with four core principles that are the focus of Chapters 3 and 4:
 “Whole system in the room”
 Global context for local action
 Focus on future and common ground, not problems and conflicts
 Self-management and responsibility for action
We advocate full attendance, healthy meeting conditions, working across three days instead of doing it all in two, and public commitments for follow-up.
Participant Terminology
We use the following terms to describe parties involved in Future Searches:
 Sponsors: those from an organization, community, or coalition who initiate a Future Search
 Steering committee (or planning group): those selected by a sponsor to help frame the task, select the stakeholders, manage the logistics, and plan for follow-up
 Stakeholders: participants from diverse backgrounds considered by sponsors to be essential to the success of the Future Search
 Funders: those who invest in projects and programs related to the purpose of the Future Search
Facilitators (also FS managers or consultants): experienced professionals who plan and manage Future Searches in collaboration with sponsors.
Structure
A Future Search typically involves 60 to 100 people who share a common purpose. We do five activities of two to four hours each, 16 to 20 hours in total, spread over three days: review the past, explore the present, create desired future scenarios, discover common ground, and make action plans.
Mixed groups—each a cross-section of the whole—work on the past and the future. Stakeholder groups whose members have a shared perspective work together on the present. Everybody validates the common ground. Action planning employs both stakeholder and self-selected groups. Every task concludes with a whole-group dialogue.
Riding the Roller Coaster
Future Search sets up powerful dynamics that can lead to constructive outcomes. We experience the conference’s peaks and valleys as an emotional roller-coaster ride, swooping down into the morass of global trends at one moment, soaring to idealistic heights at another. Uncertainty, frustration, and confusion usually resolve into fun, energy, and achievement. We believe that good contact with our ups and downs leads to realistic choices and constructive action.
Future Search accommodates diverse learning styles. Some people seek facts; others tune in to feelings. We provide a variety of activities to help people engage on many levels. All have a chance to contribute their best. Future Search requires no training, inputs, data collection, or diagnoses. Instead people tell their stories and listen to one another. In Future Search we aspire to acknowledge what we discover as an inescapable part of our shared world. In short we look for buried potential that already exists.

A Future Search typically involves 60 to 100 people who share a common purpose focusing on five topics over three days: the past, the present, the future, common ground, and action planning. Note: this diagram represents only an overview of the three-day process; for a step-by-step agenda, see Chapter 5 and Appendix A.
Moving toward Implementation
Future Search participants bridge barriers of culture, class, age, gender, ethnicity, power, status, and hierarchy by working on tasks of mutual concern. The FS process interrupts the tendency to repeat old patterns—railroading, fighting, running away, complaining, blaming, or waiting for others to fix things. Future Search gives people a chance to express their highest ideals. Instead of a meeting requiring people to change their behavior, Future Search changes the conditions under which people interact. That is something we can control, and it enables surprising outcomes.
No process, however comprehensive, guarantees action. Still we have seen more plans implemented from Future Searches than any planning method either of us has used over four decades. People act quite apart from whether they had a good time, liked the facilitators, resolved their differences, or felt finished. Action requires that people believe in shared goals and trust one another enough to cooperate. It also requires committing resources—of time and energy and sometimes money. In this edition we show how Future Search stimulates shared goals, trust, and resources.
Future Search Pushes the Boundaries of Organization Development
We see Future Search extending traditional organization development (OD) in new directions.
First, OD was conceived not as a single meeting but rather as a strategy for large-scale systemic change. An FS meeting requires fewer than three days.
Second, whereas OD depended on many people accepting the “need for change,” Future Search depends on the right people accepting an invitation to spend a few days together.
Third, OD originally was based on consultants’ diagnosing gaps between what is and what ought to be. This was intended to “unfreeze” a system, leading people to reorder their relationships and capabilities. Nearly always the action steps involved training, on the theory that people did not know how to do what they said they wanted to do. Future Search requires no diagnosis and no labeling of participants as “cooperative,” “resistant,” and the like. The greater the diversity in the room, the less useful will be any particular conceptual scheme. We have no preconceived issues except those raised by participants, so we have nothing to fix.
We don’t work to improve relationships among people or functions. Rather we set up conditions under which people can choose new ways of relating. We don’t separate social issues such as diversity, trust, communication, and collaboration from economic and technical issues. We are unlikely to run a Future Search on diversity. Rather we propose that diverse people explore how they want to live and work together.
Experiencing “Current Reality”
As facilitators we don’t judge information as good or bad, complete or sketchy, useful or futile, appropriate or redundant. Whatever people do or say—their words, behaviors, wishes, and reactions—belongs to them. Whatever happens is an expression of the stake-holders. For example, people will not suddenly give up authority/ dependency needs because they spent a few days as peers, but they may learn more about their ability to work together with shared responsibility. So we are interested in participants’ experiencing what already exists, as fully, deeply, and humanly as possible. Then people are more likely to make rational choices about what they want to do.
Sharing the Work
Ours is an encounter with the whole—self, community, and world. But we do not offer expert systems analysis. Rather we set up a situation that involves the whole person on many levels. We ask people to share the work, move around, live with uncertainty, and make their dreams visible. In a Future Search, people talk over issues they have not raised before with people they have never met. Many take responsibility for matters previously avoided or ignored. It is common for people to voluntarily commit to actions made possible only because of the other people in the room.
Although we evolved our procedures mainly with people who can read and write, Future Search does not depend on literacy. This work can be done entirely with spoken or symbolic communication. The results have been repeated in many cultures and in culturally diverse groups.
We believe that meetings designed on the principles we advocate lead to these outcomes:
 Participants taking personal responsibility
 Fast implementation of action plans
 Lasting relationships among stakeholders
Ten years ago we called this an “unproven hypothesis.” In this edition we offer persuasive evidence of a strong link among our theory, practice, and outcomes. We can say with greater certainty than before what works and what doesn’t. To evaluate our assertions, see if you can re-create our core principles and track what happens afterward.
Design Limits—in Systems, in Us
Future Search offers participants a way of working that they find easy to do. Not everybody takes advantage of the mode; not everybody believes in it; not everybody can imagine doing so much so fast or, as some see it, requiring more time than any meeting is worth. We’re not surprised when potential sponsors and consultants worry about losing control or opening up issues they would rather not air. Rarely have we led a conference where, at some moment, we did not feel anxiety. We have come to recognize it as an old friend that nearly always precedes energy and creativity.
Our meeting design requires, but does not guarantee, purpose, leadership, stakeholder involvement, and courage. You can’t affect people who don’t attend or expect others to take responsibility for plans made without them. We do not recommend Future Search for people who have no reason to work together. Moreover, ours is not a method for working through all imaginable human conflicts. We are actualizing what is waiting to happen, what people can do readily in the short time available.
The “Answer” Is in Us, Not a Meeting Design
We believe that FS principles are widely applicable to life and work today. To use them, though, we can’t just encounter systems “out there.” We also need to work on our...

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