Future Search/Search Conf. LO7667

Gil Steil (70057.404@CompuServe.COM)
28 May 96 00:03:24 EDT

Replying to LO6939 --

I am writing in reply to Steve Cabana's comparison of Future Search
and Search Conferences, which I believe contains some serious errors
and which I believe could be very misleading to people not deeply
familiar with the two methods.

Steve has been a friend for 10 years, and we see each other
frequently here in Greater Boston where we both live.

Merrelyn Emery and many others in the DP2 community have inspired my
own consulting practice - transformed it really - and I am forever
grateful. In early June I will lead a Search conference for a major
financial institution in Washington, where I will use the Search
process exactly as Merrelyn taught us. It feels very appropriate to
this client's situation. At other times, I choose Future Search.

When I read Steve's note, I had the feeling he was throwing rocks at
Marv Weisbord and Sandra Janoff's work, in a subtle, intellectual
way. I do feel strongly that rock throwing is not constructive to our
community, especially when the target is the work of someone who is
the closest thing to a natural ally as anyone I can imagine. Now, was
my feeling ill founded? Where did it come from? Is it just my
projection? Let's take a look at some details. Quoted sentences are
taken directly from Steve's commentary, as are paragraphs marked on
the left by >.

>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

Weisbord and Janoff did NOT remove references to the Emery's and their
theory base in their new book, Future Search. See pages 1, 11, 57,
59-62, 89, and 144. Their work owes much to the Emery's and the book
would not be complete without explaining the inspiration and sources
for it.

The rest of this paragraph feels distorted to me as well. I know that
the work of Schindler-Rainman and Lippitt was also important to
Weisbord and Janoff, but it feels misleading to describe Future Search
as an adaptation of the Collaborative Community Design. Readers of
Building the Collaborative Community (University of California,
Riverside, 1980) would be quite surprised. Marvin tells me he received
a request not to call the book 'Future Search' only after the book was
at the printer's.

>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

These two paragraphs are where I start to get a queasy feeling. This
reads to me like a parody of Future Search and not a serious attempt
at a summary that captures the essence. Examples: "Data Managers hang
each groups report on an assigned wall." or "People are asked to dream
about the future overnight." Would we feel like the timeline exercise
in a Search conference was adequately described by saying 'The
Conference Managers move five flipcharts to the front of the room and
write on them what people can remember from the past.'? There are
short, concise summaries of Future Search in Weisbord and Janoff's
book. In a serious review, why not quote from them?

>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.

In my view, Weisbord's method DOES draw from open systems theory. The
L22 (system environment) is examined in the study of the past and in
the brainstorm of present trends. The L21 (impact of the environment
on the system) is explored in the brainstorm and in the tasks that
follow. The L11 (internal system functioning) is treated in the
timeline of the system itself, and in the sharing of 'prouds and
sorries'. The L12 (impact of the system on its environment) is
explored in the 'stakeholder responses' exercise and of course in the
action planning.

On conflict resolution: I'm sure that there are some inexperienced or
timid conference managers who deflect or ignore conflict in the midst
of a conference, whether it's a Search Conference or a Future Search
conference. But a skilled and experienced conference manager will
not. There are several opportunities for the large group to engage in
the rationalization of conflict in a Future Search, the most important
of which is the 'reality dialogue' which occurs once the area of
common ground for the future has been staked out. Here, each element
of the common ground is discussed in the large group until every
person understands its meaning and can support its presence in the
agenda for the future. Otherwise it goes on the 'unresolved' list.
When I'm a Future Search conference manager, I allow as much time as
it takes for this discussion. In a conference for the Board of Health
for the State of Nevada it took an hour and a half, which is typical.
In a conference for the UN in Nepal, it took five hours. Time well

On the wisdom of encouraging a group to focus on common ground, and
discouraging a group from continuing to work on items in disagreement:
In Future Search, as well as Search, this is suggested only after
conflict has been rationalized. The idea springs directly from the
work of Wilfred Bion, Solomon Asch, and Fred Emery. Without an agreed
upon task, a group is not a group, an organization is not an
organization, and a community is not a community. The existence of
such a task establishes meaning and enables relationships to develop.
Groups, organizations, and communities that work on tasks about which
they agree find that their disagreements over time are reframed by their
experience together.

Future Search, like Search, is not limited to a time frame of 16 to
18 hours. I like a two and a half day format for both. The actual
time varies, of course.

Merrelyn may disagree with me on this, but I do not experience really
big differences between groups of 45 and groups of 64 in terms of
time constraints. My explanation is that people speak for others when
they speak for themselves, and that as the size of a group grows the
need of specific individuals to speak declines. I do feel a very big
difference when the group grows beyond 64. It's at this point that
facial expressions cannot be seen, writing on flipcharts cannot be
read, and other mechanical phenomena interfere with perception

>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.

In over thirty Future Search conferences I've conducted over the past
five years, this is not my experience. I believe the large group
dialog is critical to the success of the conference. I lead it and
encourage it at a minimum of four junctures. I allow it to take
whatever time it takes.

There IS a difference between Search and Future Search concerning the
longevity of the learning/planning community. Many Future Searches -
as a result of the wide net that is cast - are unlikely to be convened
again with the same participants, whereas many Search Conferences are
actually a meeting of an organization's leadership, which is quite
likely to get together again! But what happens in practice is as much
a function of the consultation between client and conference managers
as it is a function of conference design. Future Search conferences
can be excellent learning and planning experiences for a leadership
team, particularly when the design of the overall intervention
includes this goal. I've used Future Search this way with Digital
Equipment Corporation, and other organizational clients.

In most of my experience, the inclusion of "outside stakeholders"
does not hamper but enhances. In my view, there is nothing like having
customers or vendors speak for themselves. I lean towards Future
Search when my work with a client system tells me that the system
needs to hear directly from "outside stakeholders".

>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.

Again, not my experience. Fuzzy goals emerge from fuzzy consulting,
not from conference design alone. Clarity about what kind of goals
are to emerge, and who will be accountable, is a key responsibility
of the consultant and the consulting relationship. Concrete, specific
goals and action steps can be created with either Search or Future
Search. So can fuzzy ones.

Also, in today's global economy, partners, vendors, and customers CAN
and DO take responsibility for the system.

Limited time for action planning? Merrelyn taught me that if you
spend less than 30% of your time on action planning you've blown it.
Seems like it applies to both Search and Future Search to me.

It is not true that action planning was "literally tacked on". It was
there at the beginning of Future Search.

Steve seems to be suggesting that the consultant employing Future
Search has his hands tied when it comes to action planning. There is
no reason of which I'm aware that barriers and constraints cannot be
dealt with in Future Search as well as Search. No reason not to form
self-managed groups around specific strategic goals. No reason not to
use Open Space, for that matter. No reason not to dismiss
participants whose participation in action planning would not be
appropriate. Again, I see these choices independent of whether the
conference is a Search or a Future Search. They're more of a function
of the needs of the client system and the specific situation.

I think I'll stop here. I hope what I've written explains in part the
origin of my perception that Steve was throwing rocks, and my concern
for the impact this might have on all of us. In my heart I want the
best for both the DP2 community and the Future Searchers. I think
there might be a value difference well underneath this dialog, but I
believe there's 99% congruence. If two groups were ever natural
allies, these two are.


Gil Steil Gil Steil Associates 93 Pembroke Street Boston, MA 02118 U.S.A.

Voice: 617-262-4444 Fax: 617-267-3320 Email: 70057.404@compuserve.com

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