Future Search: Finding and Acting on Common Ground

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Last year a diverse group of Northern Ireland residents, each with a stake in the future of the women’s sector, met to set a common agenda. Over two and a half days they created a plan to train young women for political roles, interact with the rest of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) community, and deal with the grinding poverty that hit women and children the hardest. Moreover, they agreed on the role of the women’s movement in promoting true democracy.

One participant, Aideen McGinley, of County Fermanah, the only woman chief administrator in Northern Ireland, was inspired by the great energy released through dialogue and action planning. Six months later she sponsored a similar meeting of 100 diverse citizens in her own county to produce an integrated development plan. This effort grew to include more than 1,000 farmers, educators, environmentalists, nongovernmental organizations, youth, artists, health care workers, and business people.

Shortly after, Ms. McGinley became Permanent Secretary of the Department of Arts and Culture in Northern Ireland’s new joint government. Building on her earlier experience, she gathered together many artists, art administrators and funders, community activists, government workers, educators and tourism workers to develop a national agenda for support of the arts. Participants in this session were flabbergasted with the ease with which she handed this task to them. But Aideen McGinley believed in the principle that when you get the right people in the room and ask the right questions you get the most constructive outcomes. She was applying the principles of a methodology called “future search.”

Nor was McGinley alone. People all over the world are taking charge of their lives and communities in future search planning meetings. For example,

  • In southern Sudan adults from many sectors, including the army, met with child soldiers to plan how the youngsters might be reintegrated back into community life (see picture on page 35).
  • In Hawaii a whole community of seven towns took on the question of how to preserve their cultural heritage and reverse trends of declining health and increasing alienation in the institutions that affect them.
  • In Worcester, Massachusetts, a community group brought together residents, board members, funders, and other partners to figure out how to refocus on developing lifelong relationships with families in the area.

In this article, we provide a look at the principles, methodology, history and theory of future search. We also highlight the role of the Future Search Network, an international volunteer network with an active social change agenda based on serving communities and nonprofits. This Network’s members are the main disseminators of their methodology. In the last eight years they have taken it into hundreds of communities on every continent and taught thousands of people how to apply the principles for themselves (see Network Box).

Future search is a structure for helping people interact in constructive ways, using whatever skills, experience and knowledge they already have. The Network is committed to a specific way of carrying out social change. Instead of struggling to change others—always a problematic business—we set about changing the conditions under which people interact. In particular, we have considerable control over the structure of meetings, participants, place, length and the process of agenda setting. By controlling only these aspects, and inviting people to take charge of themselves, we make possible outcomes few people could ever envision. The Network has helped people improve water quality, engender cooperation among farmers, business people, hunters, loggers and city dwellers, improve community health, create jobs, reduce infant mortality, facilitate the merger of religious congregations and a thousand other tasks.

The techniques and methods of future search evolved out of a set of simple principles derived over the past 60 years from widely researched theories on the conditions under which diverse groups will cooperate. The basic principles are simple.

  • Get the “whole system” in the room—a cross section of all parties with a stake in the outcome.
  • Explore the “whole elephant” together before seeking to fix any part.
  • Put common ground and future focus on the action agenda, and treat problems and conflict as information, not action items.
  • Encourage self-management and responsibility among participants during and after the conference.

Each principle is based on years of research and practice around the world. Getting the whole system in one room and keeping a future focus we owe to the “Community Futures Conferences” held in dozens of locales in North America by social scientists Ronald Lippitt and Eva Schindler Rainman in the 1970s. Exploring the whole system and participant self-management is based on the innovations of Fred Emery and Eric Trist, an Australian and Englishman respectively, who in the 1960s invented the “Search Conference.” Hence the name “future search,” which honors these important pioneers. We see future search as a building block of theory and practice for a house that will never be finished.

We start by working with a six to 10-person planning group. Their main job is to decide the task to be done and the broad spectrum of stakeholders to invite. These should be people who collectively have the knowledge, perspectives, authority and resources to act together if they choose. Matching the stakeholders to the task is the vital planning task. It can take from a few days to several months.

Participants are invited to a 16 to 18-hour meeting that starts at midday and ends by mid-afternoon of the third day. In this meeting 60 to 80 participants work alternately as a whole group and in small groups. Together they explore their past and present, looking not only at the focal issue itself but also at their personal experiences in the context of world trends and influences. Then they co-create vivid scenarios of the future they desire and intend to work for.

Next, people derive their common ground from the future scenarios created by small groups. This tends to be shared values and intentions that every person in the room has examined and agreed to. People often express astonishment at how much they all want the same things, a discovery they could not make if they replayed old conflicts or sought to solve short-term problems.

Once people know the common elements of their vision they develop action projects and sign up to act.
This last step is the all-important moment of truth. Priorities in future search are not items voted on in the abstract. Rather they are projects people are ready, willing and able to take on. In this way the entire group becomes aware of what is really possible in this time and place. They differentiate wishful thinking from effective action by voting with their feet.

A unique feature of future search is that everybody works on the same tasks at the same time. Conflicts and problems are surfaced and acknowledged, but resolution is not sought. Key dialogues and conclusions take place among the entire group. Thus, every person achieves perspectives on the whole that no one person had coming in.

Uncertainty, anxiety and confusion are inevitable by-products of these meetings. So are fun, energy, creativity, and achievement. Future search relies on a counterpoint between hope and despair. We believe good contact with our ups and downs leads to realistic choices. In a future search we live with the inevitability of differences, the recognition that no meeting design can reconcile all of them, and that people are capable of riding the roller-coaster to important new action plans without “more data” or “more dialogue” if they agree to keep working together.

Commitment builds as people hang on despite anxiety to uncover buried potential that already exists. Facilitators help this along by not striving to reduce complexity to a few manageable issues, to resolve disagreements, or to solve long-standing problems.

Nor do we give people conceptual models for their perceptions. (We have learned that the more diverse the group, the riskier it is to impose our ways of making meaning.) People face each other rather than concepts. We invite participants to engage in a series of open dialogues. They do their own sorting, categorizing and organizing. Future searches often include total strangers or people with a history of conflict who come with confusing and contradictory information. As they experience each other’s diverse agendas, they realize that change means accepting each other where they are if they are to go forward together. When they invent a shared reality, they find that quick action is likely.

One of the best aspects of future search is its legacy in the communities where it has been used. We also see future search as a learning laboratory for “getting everybody improving whole systems.” By accepting future search’s simple ground rules, people learn to talk to one another and to listen more carefully. Relationships are built between people who previously wouldn’t have understood they had anything to say to one another. And participants come away with a deep respect for the complexity of the issue they address, with an understanding of their need for one another as partners to address the issue, and with the sense of energy and excitement that characterizes future building work.

We believe meetings designed on future search principles lead to more participants taking personal responsibility, faster implementation of action plans, and longer-lasting relationships across key boundaries.

Remarkable things become possible when we level the playing field for a bit, make the rules transparent, dialogue respectfully about what we value, and plan together on how to embody those values in action toward common goals. Future search helps us express our highest ideals. Its principles can inform any change strategies where inclusion of diverse stakeholders is important.

Future Search Network, an international consortium of volunteer practitioners, makes the method available worldwide in the public sector for whatever people can afford. By taking consulting costs out of the equation, we are able to help any well-motivated organization get the strategic planning help it needs. The Network has 400 members around the world, each committed to applying the basic principles in pro bono service projects that benefit society.

Members also do ongoing research (the “ripple project”), provide mentorships to new members and orientation sessions for prospective future search sponsors, document conferences, and provide logistics and planning help. The Network has the capability to recruit dozens of facilitators for interactive large group events involving hundreds of people at once. For example, it staffed the Presidents’ Summit on Volunteerism, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark’s future planning sessions, a Center for Disease Control’s community health conference, and 11 future searches that resulted in the Carson City, NV school district’s strategic plan. The Network is open to anyone interested in furthering this work.

Future Search Network sponsors two public workshops, “Managing a Future Search: A Learning Workshop,” on the method, and “Facilitating the Whole System in the Room,” a workshop on the dynamics and personal dilemmas of working with large, diverse groups. Tuition aid is available for nonprofit staff. For information, see (www.futuresearch.net), send e-mail to (fsn@futuresearch.net) or call 800-951-6333.

Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff co-direct the Future Search Network and have co-authored Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities (Berrett-Koehler, 2000). Together they have trained sector leaders around the world to use future search principles and methodology in their communities and organizations.