What is Future Search?

Future Search enables diverse groups of people with a stake in an organisation or a community to plan their own future.

This method brings a ‘whole system’ into the room to explore participants’ past, present and desired future as a back-drop to action planning. People seek common ground rather than resolve conflicts, focus on the future rather than solve old problems, generate broad commitment to a common goal, identify creative strategies and take responsibility for action.

Prior to the event, no training, input, data collection, processes or diagnosis are required. Participants just arrive and use the skills, experience and motivation they already have. They work on tasks as peers and this interrupts the tendency to repeat old patterns – railroading, fighting, running away, complaining, blaming or waiting for others to do things. Future Search fosters understanding, belief and commitment instead which are prerequisites for action, and therefore action is likely to be the outcome of Future Search.

The Structure of Future Search

  1. Review the Past - Mixed Groups
  2. Explore the Present - Stakeholder Groups
  3. Create Ideal Future Scenarios - Mixed Groups
  4. Identify Common Ground - Whole Group
  5. Make Action Plans - Stakeholder or Self-Selected Groups

What People ‘do’ in Future Search

This method is an encounter with the whole – self, community, world. People share the work, move around, make their wishes visible, live with uncertainty. They talk over issues they have not raised before with people they have never met. Many will take responsibility for matters previously avoided or ignored. They identify what they really want and it is common for people to voluntarily commit to actions made possible only because of the other people in the room.

The Dynamics of Future Search

Powerful dynamics are at play during a Future Search event (given the task sequence and group compositions). There is uncertainty, frustration and confusion and they are necessary by-products. And there is fun, energy and achievement. There are peaks and troughs in an ‘emotional roller coaster’ – dropping down into an exploration of the past and the present at one moment and soaring to idealistic heights at another. The method sets up a counterpoint between hope and despair – the assumption is that good contact with ups and downs leads to realistic choices.

Conditions for Success:

  1. The ‘whole system is in the room
  2. A global context; local action
  3. Common ground and future focus – not problems and conflicts
  4. Self-managed work groups
  5. Full attendance
  6. Healthy meeting conditions
  7. A 3-day event (ie “sleep twice”)
  8. Public responsibility for follow-up

A Future Search Conference will be more effective when:

  • It is presented as a choice point in an organisation’s or community’s life
  • It involves large numbers of diverse people
  • Top managers or community leaders are involved and have a deep wish to succeed with the event
  • Participants include a cross-section of groups with a stake in the focal issue or community, or of functions, levels and ‘outside’ stakeholders like customers, suppliers, government officials, and community members
  • Participants manage information, analysis and action planning themselves
  • The event focuses broadly on opportunities not narrowly on specific problems
  • Facilitators stay out of the way when people are working productively, and become active when there is conflict or avoidance of tasks
  • Everybody’s reality is validated as legitimate and deserving to be heard. No statement is edited, rewritten or buried
  • The whole is explored before acting on any part

A Future Search Conference may fall flat if:

  • Too few people are invited – 25 and up make for more opportunities
  • There is not enough stakeholder variety
  • The large group dialogue is by-passed
  • The total time is reduced, imagining that 2.5 days’ work can be done in a day or so
  • Keynote speakers or presenters are featured: this changes the tone and dynamics of the meeting from the shared views of the participants who need to accept responsibility for their own plans
  • The emphasis shifts from appreciating to bemoaning past and present problems
  • The group recreates unresolved conflicts or shirks the assigned tasks
  • Leaders don’t support initiatives that come out of the conference or use the opportunity to speak for their own vision
  • Consultants seek to diagnose and fill a group’s needs: this shifts control from participants to an external source, depriving the group of responsibility

Who developed Future Search?

Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff

How can I learn more?

Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff