2016 is coming to a close; this is the time of year when most organizations and their leaders focus their energy and attention on the future. It’s a time for visioning, strategic planning, goal-setting, and sorting out how tomorrow will be different from today.
But how many times have you completed a strategic planning exercise, or a visioning effort, with high energy, high hopes, and exuberant optimism that the effort will finally – finally! – produce meaningful change, only to see everything evaporate in the face of organizational resistance and/or apathy?
Achieving lasting and meaningful change in large organizations often feels impossible. It’s like Sisyphus rolling that boulder up the mountain, only to see it cascading back down to the valley, and having to start pushing it uphill all over again – and again, and again.
One of the best ways I know to avoid that kind of frustration and stagnation is a Future Search Conference.
The approach was developed by Marvin Weisbord and several colleagues in the early 1990s. It is described in detail, with plenty of tips and techniques along with several compelling case examples, in Future Search: Getting the Whole System in the Room for Vision, Commitment, and Action, by Weisbord and Sandra Janoff.
The basic concept of future search is embedded in the book’s subtitle. It involves bringing all the stakeholders in an organization together for a structured conversation that includes confronting issues candidly, surfacing differing perspectives and visions, building a common vision of a desirable future, and then developing a workable plan for achieving that vision. The process produces not only insightful strategies but commitment to turn those strategies into reality.
Future Search works for several reasons, not the least of which is the presumption that every stakeholder brings legitimate experiences and expectations to the conversation. Future Search facilitators must be skilled at both sticking to an agenda and enabling differences in perspective to surface, be heard, and be accepted. It’s not an easy task!
Future Search conferences are built on four basic principles:
- Get all the stakeholders in the same room (engage the whole system)
- Explore the whole “elephant” before trying to fix any part
- Focus on the future and on common ground, not on problems or conflicts
- Encourage self-management and personal responsibility for actions and results.
Engage the Whole System
It is exceedingly rare for all the stakeholders in any situation, with all their knowledge, experience, and perspectives, to be actively involved in problem-solving at the same time. As a result many organizational problems and inefficiencies persist for years because there’s always some point of view or understanding that was left out – and thus there are “outside” critics who resist proposed improvements because their perspectives weren’t included in the solution design process.
As the late New York Senator Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” The first phase of a future search conference is to get all the facts (and opinions) out in the open so everyone can see the “whole elephant.” And that is precisely what principle number two demands.
Explore the whole elephant before trying to fix any one part
Constructive conversations begin by identifying areas of agreement rather than differences. If there is too much conflict or disagreement early on it can become incredibly difficult to build up any interest in finding common ground or even agreeing on common goals.
So the early focus of a Future Search conversation is on reaching a common or shared understanding of the “whole elephant” – the broad issue or challenge the group is facing. It’s worth staying at the hundred-thousand-foot level initially in order to create that common view of what the group is facing and where it wants to go as a group.
Focus on the future and common ground, not on problems or conflicts
Principle Three highlights the importance of finding common ground before getting caught up with differing views and values. Focus on the “big picture” and find views that everyone can agree with; that makes it much easier to confront differences, or to hone in on particular topics that may not even be of interest to everyone.
Encourage self-management and personal responsibility for actions and results
Most of the conversations during a Future Search conference take place in small groups – no more than three-to-five people around a table. Usually all the small groups are addressing the same questions or carrying out the same assigned tasks.
However, it is critical for the participants in those groups to be free to manage their conversations on their own. If the facilitators impose too many “rules” or restrictions on the small group conversations, the participants may feel constrained in what they can say, and they will certainly not feel adequate responsibility for the outcomes of their conversations
As you look ahead to 2017, give Future Search serious consideration as a way to build a tangible picture of the future, along with a plan for getting there and the commitment to make it happen.
Portions of this article were adapted from Chapter 7 of Making Meetings Matter: How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age (link is to the book’s page on Amazon.com. However, you should contact me directly for volume discounts). Chapter 7, “Designing and Leading Extraordinary Meetings,” includes descriptions of several distinctive approaches for orchestrating meaningful leadership conversations about the future.
Call me today (+1 510.558.1434) for a free exploratory conversation about how you can become a hero by designing a Future Search exercise that prepares your organization to thrive in the future. Isn’t it time to upgrade the quality and the effectiveness of all your meetings?