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Future Search is the name for a 3-day planning meeting that enables people to cooperate in complex situations, including those of high conflict and uncertainty. The method typically involves groups of 40 to 80 people in one room and as many as 300 in parallel conferences. People from diverse backgrounds use Future Searches to make systemic improvements in their communities and organizations, working entirely from their own experience. It has been employed with most social, technological and economic issues in North and South America, Africa, Australia, Europe, India and South Asia. People achieve four outputs from one meeting--shared values, a plan for the future, concrete goals, and an implementation strategy.
Started by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, Future Search functions to help people collaborate despite differences of culture, class, gender, age, race, ethnicity, language, and education. The method has been employed in communities, schools, hospitals, churches, corporations, government agencies, foundations and NGO’s.
Future Search methods have been used to help: organize the demobilization child soldiers in Southern Sudan, develop an integrated economic development plan in Northern Ireland, work with a Hawaiian community to reconnect with traditional values, and determine the future of urban mobility in Salt Lake City, Utah, among many other examples.
Four principles underlie a successful Future Search
- Getting the “whole system in the room”
- Exploring all aspects of a system before trying to fix any part
- Putting common ground and future action front and center, treating problems and conflicts as information, not action items.
- Having people accept responsibility for their own work, conclusions, and action plans.
Future Search Conference
People follow a generic agenda, regardless of topic. It consists of 4 or 5 half day sessions on the Past, the Present, the Future, Common Ground, and Action Planning. The techniques used — time lines, a mind map, creative future scenarios, common ground dialogue — are all managed to support the principles. People need no special training, orientation, vocabulary, or background to participate. They work in small groups, make reports to the whole, and join in whole group dialogues on what they are learning.
Future Search managers practice a “hands-off” approach to facilitation, encouraging people to share information and draw their own conclusions. They rarely become involved except to help people clarify goals or to head off situations that might result in conflict or flight from their task.
There is a vast literature documenting successful Future Searches. There also have been notable failures that people need to be aware of. The most common causes of failure are:
- Non-interdependent groups (people who do not need each other).
- Issues on which most participants do not wish to act.
- Key actors missing.
- Allowing too little time for the size of the task.
- Overactive/controlling facilitation.
Details of the method can be found in the book Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities, by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, 2nd edition (Berrett-Koehler, 2000).
What is the Future Search Network (FSN)?
FSN is a voluntary, non-profit service network. It has 350 members on every continent who commit to serve society while cooperating and learning together. Their mission is making a more open, whole, and sustainable world. The members manage Future Searches in any language and culture for whatever people can afford. The network is open to everyone who agrees to serve and practice the method in the spirit of its principles.
There is no formal certification. FSN members maintain high standards through ongoing dialogue among themselves, research, and shared case studies on successes and failures. People receive training in public workshops held in various countries each year and by assisting experienced members. The global spread of Future Search is accounted in Chapters 16 and 17, Productive Workplaces Revisited: Dignity, Meaning and Community in the 21st Century, by Marvin Weisbord (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2004).
Formal Research Studies of Future Searches
See a chapter prepared by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff for the Handbook for the Selection and Implementation of Human Performance Interventions, Ryan Watkins and Doug Leigh, Editors, to be published in 2009[dated info] by Jossey-Bass/Wiley and the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI).
(2)Holman, Peggy, Tom Devane & Steve Cady. The Change Handbook. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007.
(3)Janoff, Sandra. “Preparing for the Future Begins with Today’s Youth – A Future Search with 50 teenagers in a rural county in SW Michigan, USA.” FutureSearching, Issue #27, Fall, 2003.
(4)Janoff, Sandra and Marvin Weisbord. “Three Perspectives on Future Search: Meeting Design, Theory of Facilitating, Global Change Strategy.” in Scandinavian Journal of Organizational Psychology, Volume 13, 2003.
(5)McDonald, Kathleen L. The Future Of School Counseling And Guidance In Washington State: A Future Search Conference. Ed.D. Dissertation, Seattle University, 1998.
(6)Polanyi, Michael F.D. “Communicative Action in Practice: Future Search and the Pursuit of an Open, Critical and Non-Coercive Large-Group Process.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 19, 357-366 (2002).
(7)Secor, Julianne H. Advancing Women As Leaders: An Intergenerational, Multicultural Future Search Conference For Activist Women. Ed.D. Dissertation, Seattle University, 1999.
(8)Starodub, Linda Ann Susan. Facilitating Whole-System Methods Across Cultures: A Case Study Of A Future Search Conference On The Future United Nations In Pakistan. Ph.D. Dissertation, The Union Institute, 2001.
(9)Weisbord, Marvin & Sandra Janoff. Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities. 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2000.
(10)Weisbord, Marvin & Sandra Janoff. “Faster, Shorter, Cheaper May be Simple; It’s Never Easy.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 41, No. 1, 70-82, 2005.
(11)Wilcox, Gillian & Sandra Janoff. “’I Dream of Peace’ - A Future Search for the Children of Southern Sudan.” FutureSearching, Issue # 18, Spring, 2000