Future Search (excerpt)

Common Ground Under Complex Conditions

Marvin Weisbord (Author) | Sandra Janoff (Author)

Publication date: 03/01/2008

Future Search (excerpt)

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Meet the Authors

Visit Author Page - Marvin Weisbord

Marvin Weisbord consulted with business firms, medical schools, and hospitals from 1969 to 1992. He was a partner in the consulting firm Block Petrella Weisbord for 20 years and is a fellow of the World Academy of Productivity Science. Productive Workplaces (2012), now in its third edition, is considered a classic. He also authored Organizational Diagnosis (1978) and Discovering Common Ground (1992).

He is co-director, along with Sandra Janoff, of Future Search Network (formerly SearchNet), an international non-profit dedicated to community service, colleagueship, and learning. For more information, please visit www.futuresearch.net.

Visit Author Page - Sandra Janoff

Sandra Janoff, PhD, consults worldwide with corporations, government agencies, and communities and leads training workshops in strategic planning and leadership. Her research on the relationship between moral reasoning and legal education was featured in the Minnesota Law Review. She also is co-author (with Yvonne Agazarian) of a definitive treatise on small-group systems theory.

She is co-director, along with Marvin Weisbord, of Future Search Network (formerly SearchNet) an international non-profit dedicated to community service, colleagueship and learning. For more information, please visit www.futuresearch.net.

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Future Search


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:

image Updated the design with subtle refinements that simplify the flow and improve the output (Chapter 5 and Appendix A)

image Added new cases based on our own and colleagues’ recent experiences in diverse cultures and sectors (Chapter 1)

image Documented the “ripple Effect” of Future Search by showing results sustained in various sectors over many years (Chapter 2)

image Offered specific guidance for FS sponsors, steering committees, participants, funders, and facilitators (Chapter 6)

image Noted several examples of the economic Benefits of Future Search (Chapter 7)

image Added more advice on planning and the use of virtual technologies (Chapters 8 and 9)

image Preserved the emphasis on our core philosophy and theory of facilitating (Chapters 10 and 11)

image Described FS variations and integration with other methods (Chapter 12)

image Incorporated many more examples of how to sustain action with effective follow-up (Chapter 13)

image Interviewed leaders around the world to discover what Future Search means to them (Chapter 14)

image Surveyed research and evaluation studies for formal evidence of what works (Chapter 15)

image 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:

image To create a shared vision and action plan for an organization, network, or community

image To enable all stakeholders to act on common ground and take responsibility for their own plans

image 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:

image “Whole system in the room”

image Global context for local action

image Focus on future and common ground, not problems and conflicts

image 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:

image Sponsors: those from an organization, community, or coalition who initiate a Future Search

image 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

image Stakeholders: participants from diverse backgrounds considered by sponsors to be essential to the success of the Future Search

image Funders: those who invest in projects and programs related to the purpose of the Future Search

imageFacilitators (also FS managers or consultants): experienced professionals who plan and manage Future Searches in collaboration with sponsors.


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:

image Participants taking personal responsibility

image Fast implementation of action plans

image 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 ourselves. In particular, we have to learn to let go of the need to fix other people. We hear many questions that start, “Yes, but how do you get them to…” followed by “show up,” “stay the whole time,” “listen to each other,” “not talk too much,” “say what they really think in front of so-and-so,” or “make practical plans.”

Our answer is, “We don’t.” The spirit of Future Search is self-management and discovery. We expect participants to share leadership and organize their own work. We tell people everything we know about success. We show up when we think we will succeed. And we trust people to do whatever is in their own best interest. If the right people come to a Future Search, stay the whole time, and say what they wish, we ask no more.

Related Processes

Many conference processes overlap ours. One is the Search Conference pioneered by Eric Trist and Fred Emery (Weisbord et al., 1992) and developed further by Merrelyn and Fred Emery (Emery, 1993). Our method owes a great deal to their work and differs in several respects (for example, our emphasis on the “whole system in the room” and our evoking personal experiences and creative future scenarios as a backdrop for action).

We consider Open Space Technology (OST), invented by Harrison Owen (1997), a twin in spirit to Future Search. In OST people select their agendas and groups. In Future Search predetermined groups work the same tasks toward a common future. Both models invite participants to manage their small groups, and both build a strong communal spirit.

Another related process is the Dialogue Group of the late physicist David Bohm, developed further by William Isaacs (1999) and his colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We share with this model the norm that all issues are valid and that all views be heard. Unlike dialogue groups, Future Searches are structured, task focused, actively managed, and time-bound toward action.

We also note the participative strategic-planning conferences—Whole Scale Change and Real Time Strategic Change—of the late Kathleen Dannemiller (Dannemiller-Tyson Associates, 2000) and Robert Jacobs (1994). We share with these models a common ancestor in the large-group meetings of Eva Schindler-Rainman and Ronald Lippitt (1980). In the Dannemiller/Jacobs conferences, leaders take a central role in setting the context, giving information on future directions, and fielding questions. In a Future Search, leaders, experts, and special interests participate along with everybody else. Also, the OST and Dannemiller/Jacobs conferences can accommodate hundreds of people at once in contrast to our preferred 60 to 100.

Two related processes that emerged since our previous edition are Appreciative Inquiry (AI), developed by David Cooperrider (2005) and associates, and the World Café, devised by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs (2005). The Appreciative Inquiry Summit (Ludema et al., 2003), incorporating many aspects of Future Search, builds on positive experiences derived from premeeting interviews. Future Search accepts all experiences as relevant. The World Café features structured, self-managed conversations and can be run with any number of people in any time frame.

We continue to learn from, encourage, and support all open-system processes. Their similarities and differences seem minor to us compared with the need for helping people experience wholeness in a time of unprecedented complexity and bewilderment. For us the concept of “best model” is an anachronism. We think the metaphor for these methods is a kaleidoscope: Everybody has the same bits of colored glass. Each personal “shake” provides new patterns. We believe that the best model for you is one that squares with your goals, values, intuition, and capabilities. Indeed you should use no other.

Many people now integrate various large-group methods, including Future Search, into new change strategies. We have added Chapter 12 to this edition to highlight this trend. Several others are experimenting with multiple conferences that raise strategic and logistical questions outside the scope of this book. We urge the reader to learn how to run single events before getting into multiple anythings. We see Future Search as a basic building block of social and personal change. If you can replicate our experience, you will open for yourself a world of new possibilities.

How the Third Edition Is Organized

Part I: Learning Chapter 1 provides an overview of results in many sectors and cultures, Chapter 2 follows cases that ripple through society for many years after an initial Future Search, and Chapter 3 describes the conditions for a successful Future Search. Chapter 4 offers a historical perspective on translating theory into practice, and Chapter 5 updates our continuing design evolution and why we do what we do.

Part II: Planning Chapter 6 offers advice for sponsors, steering committees, participants, and facilitators. Chapter 7 provides vignettes of money flowing after a Future Search. Chapter 8 shows you how to choose a topic and recruit stakeholders. Chapter 9 helps you follow through with the logistics of staging a successful Future Search.

Part III: Doing Chapter 10 teaches you the skills you need to do an expert job of facilitating a Future Search. Chapter 11 offers additional perspectives on helping groups contain anxiety, develop trust, and stay focused on the task. Chapter 12 describes variations of the FS model and its integration with other methods.

Part IV: Sustaining Chapter 13 shows you how to do effective follow-up, Chapter 14 features FS sponsors advising on what has worked for them, and Chapter 15 presents formal research into what works.

Additional Resources The Epilogue contains some provocative ideas about crossing cultures. Appendices A through E include a detailed design guide, logistics (room setup and materials), a participant workbook, and a sample invitation. We also provide practical guidelines for conference rooms.

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