Future Search/Search Conf. LO6939

Tue, 23 Apr 1996 21:39:16 -0400

Several people have posted me privately (and a few have raised the issue
on the list) requesting an explanation of the differences between the
Emery's Search Conference and Weisbord's Future Search. I asked the
permission of Maxmillian Loeffler to post his letter to me and my
response. (I recommend you push your delete button now, if you are not
interested in a detailed response on this subject). He said:

>Dear Steve:

>I greatly appreciate your elaborate and detailed account about the
>difference between the Emery's "search conference" and Weisbord's "future
>search conference", which provides me with a hightened insight in this
>matter. Posting it on the Organizational Learning List is a good idea and
>I am looking forward to see if it will inspire some discussion.

>Once again, thank you. Maxmillian Loeffler

His original note to me is as follows:

-- start of Maxmillian's msg --
>Dear Steve,

>I am Maximilian Loeffler and a German graduate student of the Master of
>Organization Development Program at Bowling Green State University.
Presently, I >am writing with other students a paper about the "Future Search
Conference" >which includes besides other aspects its historical background,
its applications >and variations. I just read your excellent article titled
"The Search for Effective >Strategic Planning is Over" which mentions the
differences between "Search >Conferences" and Marvin Weisbord's "Future
Search". Both state that they build on >the work of Fred Emery, though you
were expressing concerns about major >differences of both. Honestly, it is
not fully clear to me what those differences >are. From what I understood
you were expressing two main concerns: 1) Weisbord >includes stakeholders
from outside the system in the system's planning which you >object that it
does not reliably allow the system to develop an achievable set of >strategic
goals and 2) that there is no process for integrating the work of groups or
for making any conflict rational and understood.

>Could you refer to an article or write to me that would explain those
>differences more at length and describe the processes used in the "search
>conference" that would address the issues mentioned under number 2. Is
there any >book that you can recommend which is not published by Weisbord
that describes >the "search conference"?

>I would highly appreciate your response.

>Thank you,

>Maximilian Loeffler
--- end of Maximilian's msg ---


You can order the book: The Search Conference: A Powerful Method for
Planning Organizational Change and Community Action (ISBN 0-7879-0192-X)
from Jossey-Bass at 800-956-7739. In regards to your questions it might be
easier to review the Search Conference & Future Search separately, with
your questions in mind, and then finish with some discussion of
differences, and perhaps say a few things about Fred Emery and his
contributions to those of us who pursue this work:

The Emery's Search Conference is a direct translation of Open System
Theory into a design for learning and planning in community (see diagram
page 25 of July/Aug. 95 issue of Journal of Quality and Participation).
Following the principles of Open System theory we have three tasks to
produce an adaptive relationship, or a condition of dynamic stability,
between any system and its environment. They are to:

(1) Understand the shifts and changes in the Environment.
(2) Examine our own system.
(3) Fit the system and its environment together:
i.e. Establish an ongoing active, adaptive relationship through the
vehicle of a learning/planning community which works to bring the system
into a sustainable relationship with its environment.

Lets take each of these in turn with the understanding that each Search
Conference is custom designed using this basic structure as an orienting
device. For example, in greenfield sites there is no pre-existing system
to examine. A Search for the future of a new product, to facilitate a
merger or to create a new system (like in forming strategic alliances)
might also require adjustments in the basic design.

(1) The Shifts and Changes in the Environment. So first, we look outside
the organization at the changes in the world which surrounds the system we
are in (i.e. the trends and discontinuities impacting us). Then we
identify the most desirable and probable futures of the world around us.
And if it is a search conference for an organization we work on the
desirable and probable futures of the task environment (Our customers,
suppliers, higher headquarters, regulators etc..)

There are likely to be some items in conflict between groups around what
is probable and desirable. These areas of disagreement are made rational
and understandable by asking two questions as each self-managing group
presents its work: First we request that people ask questions that strive
for clarification only. We all operate out of different mental models and
often do not share a common meaning for the same word. Once there is a
common meaning we can move on. The second question asks for commitment. If
we are talking about the desirable future, we are asking people whether or
not there is anything in another groups work that everyone is not prepared
to live with or work wholeheartedly to make happen. There will be vigorous
discussion on some items and then a new understanding will emerge. Other
items will remain in conflict and they will go up on a disagreed list and
be removed from consideration.

Now this process of conflict rationalization eats up a lot of time and
limits the number of people you can comfortably have in a Search
Conference. If you go over forty people, you are likely to need more time
in order to successfully produce a learning planning community, a very
precise set of action plans and a self-managing structure that can
continue over time to implement the plan.

It is perfectly consistent in the Emery's model to bring in stakeholders,
like customers or suppliers from outside the system to participate in the
activities I have just mentioned. Why is this okay? Because you have not
yet gotten into the work of the system itself. So you could invite the
relevant outsiders and then say thanks a lot for your input and so long.
Now it's time to get into our own stuff and figure out how to organize
ourselves to adapt to your needs.

Our objective is to produce a learning-planning COMMUNITY made up of
people from within the systems boundaries. We want thinking and doing to
be done by these people, the ones responsible for the future of this
system. That means controlling and coordinating their own work during the
Search Conference (SC) and after the SC in order to bring their plan to
fruition. Keeping people from outside the systems boundaries around (as in
the Weisbord method) will make that difficult and lead (in my and others
experience) to fuzzy, difficult to implement plans. The result could be
that people's commitment and bias for action degrade and little meaningful
results occur.

(2) Examine Our Own System. What do people do when they engage together in
the work of the system? They look at the history of their system by
reenacting it through a whole community dialogue. A lot of work occurs
during this dialogue most notably significant unlearning can occur (i.e..
they can let go of how they were successful in the past and open their
minds and hearts to new learning) that makes it possible for the system to
better adapt to its environment. People figure out the good stuff they
collectively want to keep, the bad stuff its time to dump and the stuff
they haven't yet started on that they want to create. This too, is done as
a whole community. Then self-managing groups form and they work on the 5
or 6 strategic goals they want to achieve. This last step eats up a lot of
time because, once again, conflict must be rationalized and a manageable
set of goals agreed upon so everyone will be able to move forward
together. This produces commitment in their heart and gut and it is a
powerful process to witness.

(3) Fit the System and its Environment Together. Okay, so we have looked
at the environment outside of us, and the system of which we are a part.
Now its time to bring those together. There are constraints out there that
will make our plans difficult to achieve. Up to now it was premature to
explore them. Why, you ask? Because without the strength, synergy and
commitment of a fully formed learning-planning COMMUNITY it would be an
overwhelming task to move beyond awareness of the system, and a common
vision (expressed in the form of a set of highly specific strategic goals)
to where people are ready for actively dealing with constraints. Even so,
people will go through some rough seas and question whether they are up to
the task of coming up with strategies to deal with their system's

A well formed community will be able to move forward towards achieving
their strategic goals when this brief planning time together is completed.
If you don't have a well formed community they leave the conference on a
high note, all right, but their fragile sense of relationship crumbles at
the first set of obstacles they encounter. So they withdraw their energies
and/or move back into a dependency relationship expecting a leader to
emerge who will magically solve their dilemmas. After the integration of
environment and system is finished we find it is important to give people
the tools to set up an effective self-managing structure so they can
continue to move forward on their own.

What are the differences between the two approaches?

First a little history on the Emery's relationship with Weisbord since he
published Productive Workplaces. The Emery's want to preserve the
integrity of their theory and the method which sprang from it. They asked
Weisbord, some time ago, not to use the names Future Search/Search
Conference for his adaptation of the Schindler-Rainman and Lippit
Collaborative Community Design. Particularly, since they had coined these
names in the seventies for their method. Weisbord chose to keep the name
but did remove reference to the Emery's and their theory base in his new

The Weisbord approach starts with a focus on the past (who we are, where
we've been, changes we have experienced, how we got here as individuals).
Individual fill in worksheets alone and record their data on wall charts.
Then they analyze their history identifying and interpreting patterns and
themes in the global society, their system and personally in their lives.
Data managers hang each groups report on an assigned wall. Each group
reports on what it learned from its discussion. Next, from understanding
the themes and patterns of the last three decades the whole group
brainstorms the ideal world they would like their community to live in.
Then they are facilitated in a large group to produce a brainmap of the
present system and go up with colored dots to put on those trends they
think are most important. Next, groups of stakeholders meet to produce
proud and sorry lists that reflect how they are dealing with the present
situation. Up to eight table groups report their findings to the other

People are asked to dream about the future overnight. The next day mixed
stakeholder groups focus on the future by preparing a skit, article,
broadcast etc.. which they can act out before the large group. Next groups
prepare a consensus list of elements they think ought to be in the future
vision. As tables report out lengthy discussion is not allowed since this
would eat up a lot of time. Then individuals are asked to decide and
commit to a contribution they can make to support the vision. Finally,
people meet in their constituency groups to commit to one supporting
action step which there stakeholder group will present to the whole

Please note the differences: Weisbord's method deals in linear time (past,
present and then the future), and does not draw from open system theory to
produce its design. In his method, there is no structured approach for
working through issues in conflict between groups. The focus is on the
easy to agree on items, not issues in dispute. In fact, Weisbord goes on
record as avoiding differences. There is a pragmatic reason why Weisbord's
method does not include a method for integrating the work of groups or
making conflict between groups rational and understandable - the time
demands made by conflict rationalization. Deleting this step lets you run
the event with more people, 60 or 70, in only 16 - 18 hours instead of the
two and a half days required by the Emery's method.

Another consequence of most tasks being done in separate groups or by
individuals is the marginal opportunity for the large group dialogue which
contributes to the formation of a sustainable learning/planning community.
The inclusion of outside stakeholders also hamper this development of a
community which can continue to learn from and actively adapt to it's ever
changing environment.

Stakeholders, from outside the system are included in the whole process in
Weisbord's method even though they are not in any position to take
responsibility for the system. Stakeholders have no vested interest in
seeing the plan through to implementation. That is one reason why 'fuzzy'
goals can emerge from the Weisbord method. Another reason is the very
limited time allotted to action planning. It was literally tacked on and
was not included at all in Weisbord's first formulation of his method.
There is also an absence of any planning on how to overcome constraints
that represent barriers to the achievement of plans. And little effort is
made to form self-managed groups which form around specific strategic
goals and continue to work together after the search conference to make
the plans happen.

A little background on Fred Emery. Who is Fred Emery and what has his
contribution been to our ability to produce learning organizations which
are designed to be able to actively adapt to their changing environment?
Fred Emery worked with Eric Trist in the 1950's observing the first
self-directed work teams in the field and put together the basic
characteristics of open systems theory in 1959 into the Social and
Technical System framework so people could redesign work into team based
organizations. If you've got teams and used steering committees and design
teams to establish them it came from Fred and his colleagues work. In 1972
Fred Emery and Russell Ackoff wrote their book, "On purposeful Systems"
which developed the insights that in the 1950's and 1960's proved to be
usable metaphors from cybernetics and biology. Their purpose was to
articulate a solid systems basis for distinguishing man from machine.

Fred Emery and Merrelyn Emery applied their open systems knowledge, and
other theoretical models, testing many SC design variations (throughout
the 1970's in Australia) in order to learn how to effectively translate
open systems thinking into a design for learning and planning in
community. That is - to produce a design which, if one was grounded in its
theoretical principles, would be replicable and could be reliably adapted
to any system wishing to achieve an active, adaptive relationship with its
environment. (In the seventies dozens of books on open system concepts
were written. Today they languish in libraries as they offered no means
for translating the concepts into action). Today, Fred remains at home in
Australia finishing up a new book on Systems Thinking for Hampton Press. I
hope these comments are helpful.

All the best to those of you who are working to create organizations that
achieve their productivity, quality and financial goals while at the same
time being environments where people experience dignity, meaning, caring
and community in their work.

Steven Cabana
Whole System Associates
PO Box 254
Lincoln, MA. 01773
508-466-6884 (phone and fax) StevCabana@aol.com



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