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Future Search

"A future search," write Weisbord and future search co-developer Sandra Janoff, "is a large group planning meeting that brings a 'whole system' into the room to work on a task-focused agenda.... In a future search, people have a chance to take ownership of their past, present, and future, confirm their mutual values, and commit to action plans grounded in reality."

By "whole system" Weisbord and Janoff mean 30-64 diverse stakeholders -- a cross-section of people concerned with the activities of the organization or community undertaking the search. About one-third of them come from outside the system. For example, if a local community is doing the future search, then the outsiders might include officials and citizens from nearby cities, state and county officials, representatives of national organizations or businesses involved in the community -- key people who don't normally work together.

Once the diverse stakeholders are gathered together, they begin exploring their shared past: What are the patterns of the last several decades? What are the stories? What does it all mean? Diverse participants often come up with clashing perspectives. In future search, differences like this are simply understood and acknowledged, not "worked through." Like a meditator who brings her wandering attention back to her rhythmic breathing, future search participants continually return their attention to their common ground -- in this case, the shared milestones in their history.

Moving to the present, participants explore the trends -- including global forces -- at work in their lives. Together they create a detailed "mind map" of these trends on a giant sheet of paper. They discuss concerns, prioritize the trends they've identified and explore common ways of viewing the "mess" they've charted together. They tell each other what they're proud of and what they're sorry about. Often their perspective on themselves and each other shift dramatically during these exercises.

Diverse stakeholders then gather in subgroups to imagine themselves 5, 10 and 20 years in the future. They generate concrete images and examples of what's going on in their chosen future, and the barriers they imagine they've had to overcome to get there. After coming together to share this information, participants develop lists of common futures (what they agree they want), potential projects (how to get there) and unresolved differences. After some reflection and second thoughts, each participant figures out what they personally want to work on. They get together with others of similar passion to plan action. Follow-up has suggested that people in such groups tend to continue working together.

Simply by changing the conditions under which people interact, future search procedures enable participants to bridge barriers of culture, class, age, gender, ethnicity, power, status and hierarchy to work together as peers on tasks of mutual concern. Unlike many community organizers and organizational consultants, future search facilitators offer no diagnosis of problems, no prescriptions for fixing things, no preconceived issues, frames of reference or action ideologies. They "don't judge information as good or bad, complete or sketchy, useful or futile, appropriate or redundant. Whatever people do or say -- their words, their behavior, their wishes, and their reactions -- belongs to them," write Janoff and Weisbord. Not knowing what issues and obstacles will arise, facilitators simply set a workable process in motion and let the system come up with its own information, meanings and motivation. In short, they help participants self-organize.

You can read about an example in "Future Search in Kansas City."

See also

Moving Beyond Power Plays to Collaboration by Kenoli Oleari




Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities (Berrett-Koehler, 1995)

Marvin Weisbord & 35 International Coauthors, Discovering Common Ground: How Future Search Conferences Bring People Together to Achieve Breakthrough Innovation, Empowerment, Shared Vision and Collaborative Action (Berrett-Koehler, 1993)


Marvin Weisbord has been documenting future searches on videotapes which are available through Blue Sky Productions, 5918 Pulaski Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19144.


Marv has also set up SearchNet, a network of consultants learning to run "future search" conferences by donating their services to non-profits in their own communities. Network members work on issues such as the environment, homelessness, AIDS, education and housing. Contact Workplace Revolution, (215) 951-0300.



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