Future Search

Developed by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, Future Search is a large group meeting that brings a 'whole system' (30 - 80 stakeholders) into the room to work on a task-focused agenda. It brings people from all walks of life into the same conversation - those with resources, expertise, formal authority and need. They meet for 16 hours spread across three days. People tell stories about their past, present and desired future. Through dialogue they discover their common ground. Only then do they make concrete action plans.

It relies on mutual learning among stakeholders as a catalyst for voluntary action and follow-up. People devise new forms of cooperation that continue for months or years.

About one-third of participants come from outside the system. For example, if a local community is doing the Future Search, then the outsiders might include officials and citizens from nearby towns or cities or representatives of national organizations or businesses involved in the community - key people who don't normally work together.

Once the diverse stakeholders are gathered together, they begin exploring their shared past: What are the patterns of the last several decades? What are the stories? What does it all mean? Diverse participants often come up with clashing perspectives. In Future Search, differences like this are simply understood and acknowledged, not 'worked through.' Future Search participants continually return their attention to their common ground - in this case, the shared milestones in their history.

Moving to the present, participants explore the trends - including global forces - at work in their lives. Together they create a detailed 'mind map' of these trends on a giant sheet of paper. They discuss concerns, prioritize the trends they've identified and explore common ways of viewing the 'mess' they've charted together. They tell each other what they're proud of and what they're sorry about. Often their perspective on themselves and each other shift dramatically during these exercises.

Diverse stakeholders then gather in subgroups to imagine themselves 5, 10 and 20 years in the future. They generate concrete images and examples of what's going on in their chosen future, and the barriers they imagine they've had to overcome to get there.

After coming together to share this information, participants develop lists of common futures (what they agree they want), potential projects (how to get there) and unresolved differences. After some reflection and second thoughts, each participant figures out what they personally want to work on. They get together with others of similar passion to plan action.

Follow-up has suggested that people in such groups tend to continue working together.

Simply by changing the conditions under which people interact, Future Search procedures enable participants to bridge barriers of culture, class, age, gender, ethnicity, power, status and hierarchy to work together as peers on tasks of mutual concern.

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