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Book Review: Future Search
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Book Review: Future Search by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff

Future Search: Getting the Whole System in the Room for Vision, Commitment, and Action

Written by: Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010. 274+xii pages.
Reviewed by: Ruediger Klein

Future Search

Corporations today must deal with change at an ever-increasing pace and scale. Change impressed on the organization from outside leads to structural gaps in organization, process, and skills sets of employees. Strategies that were perfect yesterday are barely adequate today and may lead to disaster tomorrow. And even if the corporation's strategy has been perfectly developed, execution problems may still make it ineffective (Bossidy, Charan, and Burck, 2002). The answer for more and more organizations is to involve employees and other stakeholders from the early stage of strategy formulation through the execution of that strategy. How to do this efficiently without sinking into chaos?

Over the past 30 years, a variety of methods have sprung up to conduct large-scale workshops with attendees numbering anywhere from 30 to several thousand. The best-known methods are The Conference Model®, Future Search (Weisbord, 1984), Open Space Technology (Herman and Corrigan, 2002), Real Time Strategic Change (Dannemiller, James, and Tolchinsky, 1999), and Search Conferences (Rehm and Cebula, 1996). An overview of these methods and their origin are referenced (Bryson and Anderson, 2000; Leith, 2004; Van der Zouwen, 2009).

With this book, Marvin Weisbord, the inventor and promoter of Future Search, provides a complete manual for company executives, their planning staff, and external consultants, of how to plan and run these complex workshops. Future Search has been used by a wide variety of organizations and in many cultures throughout the world. The book contains a chapter (The Ripple Effect), which details a variety of projects and the effects the workshop had on the organizations several years after the workshop concluded. The variety and impact of these effects is impressive.

The topic of Future Search being large-scale change, the connection to new product development may not be immediately obvious, but Future Search has been used for portfolio reviews and strategic planning in a number of organizations and for a number of products ranging from home furnishings to snack food (Weisbord and Janoff, 2010; Weisbord and Network, 2004).

The book consists of four parts. In part one, the Future Search method is introduced. Part two and three form the core of the book and describe in detail the planning and conducting of the workshop. Part four is a welcome closure picking up topics, such as following up on the workshop, listening to the leaders of Future Search, and current research topics in Future Search. The appendices provide a step-by-step facilitator guide, a description of the meeting logistics, and a sample workbook, as well as a sample workshop invitation.

Future Search builds on four core principles:

  1. Whole system in the room;
  2. Global context for local action;
  3. Focus on future and common ground, not problems and conflicts; and
  4. Self-management and responsibility for action.

It also utilizes four “insurance policies”:

  1. Full attendance;
  2. Healthy meeting conditions;
  3. Three-day event (sleep twice); and
  4. Public responsibility for follow-up.

The major benefit of a Future Search workshop is to “transform a system's capability for action” (p. 1) within a short period of time. The fundamental idea is to bring everyone with a stake in the issue together to come to a common understanding of the complete situation (global context) and then agree on a way forward. Integral to the idea is the concept of everybody contributing to finding a solution rather than just a few experts.

This is also how Future Search distinguishes itself from other whole system workshop types, such as Real Time Strategic Change, which begins when the experts have developed a solution, which the whole system needs to implement. The focus there is to involve stakeholders in the implementation planning, and the issue is managing the transition of ownership over the solution from the experts to the implementers. In contrast, in a Future Search workshop, participants are from the beginning involved in running the workshop and managing its progress. Because no external information is brought into the workshop, it is clear that participants are the sole source of a solution and an implementation. Accountability is furthered at several key points in the workshop through public declarations of commitments made by participants.

A Future Search workshop is a full, two-day workshop conducted over three consecutive days. It begins in the afternoon on the first day and completes by noon on the third day. This allows attendees for two evenings and nights to reflect on the day's learnings and use these reflections as a basis for action. The agenda for such a workshop is:

  • Day 1 PM—Past—where we've been
  • Day 2 AM—Present—where we are
  • Day 2 PM—Future—what we want
  • Day 3 AM—Common Ground and Action—how we get there

Over the three days, a dynamic develops which necessarily leads the participants to action. The sections about the past and the present develop a common understanding of the problems but also of the capacity of the organization. The section about the future allows for goal setting. In the final section, common ground and action, the foundation laid by the three prior sections is tested, and activities are planned to achieve the set goals. Common ground is identified and utilized to block out those issues on which the participants cannot readily agree, in favor of clearly defined actions, which gain momentum through the workshop.

In the end then, this may well be the reason Future Search works: It effectively focuses the organization on the next steps, which can be taken without further delay. Because participants also end up with a common understanding about the whole context, they should also be in much better position to support the actions resulting from the workshop.

Planning of a Future Search workshop involves the usual finding of adequate meeting room(s), gathering of necessary material, and is done by a steering-committee of 6 to 10 people, which should plan on meeting two or more days. Crucial to a Future Search workshop is the proper framing of the Future Search. It determines the mix of stakeholders and overall target. Preparation of meeting materials consists largely of prompts and templates for the group activities. These materials contain very little information but provide the necessary framework so that participants don't get lost.

During the workshop, a number of workshop methods are used: During the section about the past, a timeline of the organization is prepared. The section about the present makes heavy use of mind-mapping and multivoting techniques, while the section about the future employs collage techniques to visualize what may be hard to comprehend.

Future Search is a method of conducting workshops. It prescribes the necessary ingredients for a successful project in form of an agenda, workshop roles, material to be prepared, room setup, and results to be achieved. Because it can be applied to any issue warranting large-scale gathering of stakeholders over a three-day period, the author of this review and his professor used it with a midsize electronic manufacturer in Germany. After a revision of the company's vision and mission statement through employee-led workshops, the owner of the company wanted to involve his employees further in defining new target markets. About a quarter of the employees from all departments gathered over a three-day period and worked through the past, present, and future of the company's strategy.

The experience was instructive to the firm. Many potential issues mentioned in the book were encountered and addressed. For example, there were many voices requesting a two-day workshop to be conducted in two days, rather than the requested three days. While Weisbord abhors compromise, due to scheduling conflicts, the workshop was conducted over three days but with a rest day between the first and the second day. Another issue mentioned in the book, the roller coaster of facilitator and participant anxiety about the seeming chaos and impending disaster, did indeed take place, and anxiety was only lifted on the third day toward noontime when it became clear to everyone what would be achieved in the workshop. Just a few months later, the results of the workshop have already had a great impact on the annual resource planning activities and business development activities of the company.

This book has proven to be of great help in the review author's planning of a large-scale group workshop. The many experiences and potential problems highlighted from the inventor and main promoter of the method are indispensable and could only be replaced by a real-life mentor. There may be other methods for conducting these types of workshops, but if Future Search looks like something you could use, then this book should be at your disposal.

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