A Conversation With
Marvin Weisbord
Future Search:
A Power Tool for Building Healthier Communities

by Joe Flower

This article originally appeared in The Healthcare Forum Journal, vol. 38 no. 3, May-June 1995.
International Copyright 1995 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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Perhaps you have dedicated yourself to building a healthier community, but you find yourself frustrated. Perhaps you are like the healthcare executive who told me, "I'm not a community organizer. Where are the tools?" Even advanced management methods of team-building, conflict resolution and creative problem-solving seem of limited use in dealing with a system as complex as a community. Professional community organizers themselves can hit the wall when it comes to organizing around the diverse problems affecting the health of entire communities.

But the frustration around these problems, has turned out to be creative and fruitful. Over the last decade, a movement has been built around a special type of conference called variously "search conferences," "collaborative communities," "strategic futures conferences," "visioning meetings," or "future searches." They have proven useful in moving entire organizations and communities not only toward having a common vision, but toward actually beginning to build it. They can be remarkable catalysts for communities, for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, industries, in fact for any identifiable group with a common concern. They have proven useful in the complexities of healthcare [see examples]

Marvin Weisbord first clearly sketched the process in a chapter in Productive Workplaces (Jossey Bass 1987). The overwhelming response to that single chapter led to Discovering Common Ground (Berrett Koehler 1992) , in which Weisbord and 35 co-authors from around the world shared their methods and experiences using these types of conferences. Weisbord's newest book, Future Search: An Action Guide To Finding Common Ground In Organizations And Communities, (Berrett Koehler 1995) with his partner Sandra Janoff, should be out in May, 1995.

In our conversation, Weisbord took us step by step through a typical future search conference, so that we can see what makes it work, and how it is different from much of the problem-solving and brainstorming that we are used to.

Where do you start?

If you said, "Here is a community, go make it healthier," I wouldn't know where to begin. There is no abstract set of steps, by which you can begin building a healthier community. In my experience, a specific community has a specific set of issues and a specific set of people who have itches to scratch. Much of the business of fostering change springs from just who is motivated to do what.

Making a community healthier is a function of what the people who live there want to do. The energy has to come from inside.

I would start by asking myself: "What is my relationship to this community? Am I a resident? Am I a potential helper or funder? What hat am I wearing?" Only then would I ask, "How can I do something to make this community healthier?"

We have to stay specific. I would ask, "Whose support do you need? Who are you concerned about? Who are you talking about? And would you be interested in bringing them together in one place at one time to talk about how they see this issue?"

You have to ask people what they would like to do - compared to what you would like to do. If you could invite a cross section of the community who have a concern about this issue, we could help them to look at themselves and their community with a more global perspective. They could understand themselves and their potential in a more complete way. They could frame up their choices. They could discover where a cross section of the community comes together on how the future looks to them, and where it does not come together. At the same time they could discover ideas for a lot of possible projects - and find out who is willing to sign up.

The principles

The underlying goal of a future search conference is to get people onto common ground. If you really want to make a breakthrough, that is what you have to do. There are three main principles in the idea:

First, get a cross section of the whole system in the room - as diverse a group of interested parties as possible.

Second, don't solve problems or manage conflict, but put the issue in a global context and focus on the possibilities of the future.

Third, do this in such a way that people manage their work themselves, so that they take responsibility for what they think and do, what they feel and say, and ultimately what they agree to.

Start with a significant cross section of the community - that includes people with authority and people who are powerless, people with resources, and people who are poor; people who have skills and knowledge but no place to use them; people who are affected by this issue and have nobody to tell; and people who are responsible for the issue, have done the best they can, and are not satisfied with what they have been doing.

Start with a planning group and just brainstorm with them: who are all the conceivable people that you might have here? Let's imagine that you could fill up the local stadium - who would you put there? Then we start to make distinctions and pare the group down.

You need a planning group that has enough links to the community, and enough credibility, that collectively they will be able to get the people you want to have at the meeting. You could have difficulty getting some people to agree to come. We have found that there are certain constituencies that are not going to show up if one of their members is not on the planning group. For example, if you plan a conference on the future of employment in your community, sponsored by the Chamber Of Commerce, and nobody from labor has helped plan it, you are unlikely to get labor leaders to come to it. One group in Colorado set to work on water quality issues, and initially the people who sponsored it excluded the environmentalists. They regretted it when they were unable to get any environmentalists to come to the conference. They had a cross section of all the other players there, and there was one voice missing.

Who's necessary?

Some people agree to show up, then don't. Others send people in their place. But it's a funny business. You can never tell for certain who really is going to be necessary and helpful. At one community conference, the mayor of the town cancelled a day or two beforehand. So the organizers invited a guy from the community who was a gang worker, an ex-con, ex-drug addict. He turned out to be one of the most important forces at that conference.

When you have this kind of diversity, each person really does make a difference. Each person opens the door to sixty more possibilities. Each person brings not only a new perspective on the issue but a new possiblity for action.

This advantage of a true diversity of involvement is at the same time self-evident and not so obvious. It's one of those tremendous trifles. In the business world, this is not at all appreciated yet. It's not very well appreciated in the medical world, where people focus on bringing expertise to bear. I've given up on expertise. I'm working with commitment, and with enlarged understanding, which is where I think commitment comes from. I'm working with trust, with the kinds of issues that are not at all soft. They are the hardest issues of all. The numbers are what's soft. There is no correlation between the numbers and what people will actually do.

This is the real paradox. People always demand precision, numbers, data. Yet the real soft-headed, mushy, muddle-headed kind of planning work comes from people who believe that their numbers, their facts, will in any way determine what a community actually does.

So it is not so important to get expertise in the room. It is important to get true diversity.


Politicians form sort of a special group. Elected representatives seem to be the most difficult constitutiencies for this kind of work. I had first-hand experience with a local legislator in California. She participated in the planning, and she was really terrific, but she had a lot of trouble with the process. It was difficult for her. She made terrific contributions to the conference. But her position was always: "I represent my constituents. I can't speak just for myself, and I can't back anything in this conference that my constituents would oppose." She couldn't get into the mindset that we really want for people, which is to just be a citizen. You have a point of view about this, but in this conference you are not really representing anybody but yourself. Here you speak for yourself, about what you would really like to see. She couldn't do that, because she was not going to have her name on anything that would be politically damaging to her.

But this is not unexpected. One reason that there are so many people running future search conferences in so many sectors is that we're frustrated with government, with how hard it is to get a lot of important public agendas worked through the electoral process. In a way, we are turning to direct democracy.

So we invite people from the greatest possible diversity of groups and interests. But we tell people, "We invited you because of your stake as a person with your particular perspective and interest. But it doesn't seem realistic to us that you could speak for or commit people who aren't there."

You want to invite people who can do things, who have authority, who can act themselves and mobilize others. You need a critical mass of people who, if they chose, could do something new in your community.

How it's organized

The number of people in the room can make a difference. My partner Sandra Janoff and I have learned to work with dependably with 64 - eight tables of eight. We don't like to increase the size of the small groups. Groups of 10 or more find it harder to manage themselves. The bigger the group gets to be, the more small groups you have, and the harder it is to have a dialogue. There is a point at which the process that we have developed begins to erode.

We organize it as a 16-hour event: half a day on day one, morning and afternoon on day two, and then the morning of day three. If you can extend it to three o'clock on day three, so much the better, to allow a little more time for action planning.

We have five tasks, each lasting three or four hours. The general pattern of the tasks is: people in a specific kind of small group produce information, talk it over together, assign their own meanings and come to conclusions about their discussion, then report it publicly so that everybody hears from all the groups, and finally engage in a large group dialogue on what they heard and what it means to them.

When people arrive in the conference they are seated in mixed groups of eight, each group a cross section of the whole. So generally they are with strangers or people they do not know well, rather than with their peers.

The past

The first task is to review the past, usually the last 30 years. We look at our personal histories over a particular period of time. We look at what's happened in the world in that same period of time, and what's happened locally, in our own communities or in whatever frame the search is in. We create three time lines on the wall and have everybody put up there whatever they wish: the key events in their own lives, in the world, and in the community in the last 30 years. That takes about a half hour or 45 minutes.

It's a no-fail task. Everybody's data counts. Everybody is on their feet writing on flip charts within the first hour of the conference. Everybody is moving and active. We have a belief that if people move literally in the conference, they are more likely to move on the issue. The more of ourselves we invest in this process the more likely we are to do something constructive.

We ask each table to take different parts of what's up on the wall and tell us a story about it, about us as individuals, or about the community, or the world. We ask them to think about the relationships between the story they have told us and the other time lines. And they have 45 minutes to prepare their story, and three minutes to report it to the whole conference.

When everybody has heard from everybody, we ask, "What did you get out of that? What did you learn? What did you hear?" This task has the effect of getting everybody on the same planet very quickly.

We like the symbolism:
the walls belong to everybody.

We like the symbolism: the walls belong to everybody, anybody can use the markers, everybody's information is relevant, everybody has a story to tell, it's all part of a much larger picture. We don't have to say that, because people experience it in the first few hours of the conference. That establishes a mood in which people to want to go on, and want to go deeper.

This is very interesting to most people. They are often a little awed and overwhelmed when they see how much we have lived through collectively. We have found that this task builds a sense of community, and a certain level of trust and expectation, very quickly.

Mind map

In the second task we create a group mind map of all the trends in the world, in society, that are affecting us right now - any trend that anybody believes is affecting us right now, and might affect our future. We do this visually, as a group brainstorm, so that everybody's items get up there where they want them.

In the making of the map, each person gets to say what their issue is. We get them to give concrete examples. People begin to see what's on the minds of other people in the community, and what kinds of data they are in touch with.

Somebody might say, "Health care is getting worse," and we say, "Well, that's a trend. What do you mean?" And they tell their story: "I had to wait at the Emergency Room," or "My insurance costs are through the roof." So that goes up on the mind map. Someone else says, "I think health care is getting much better." We say, "What are you talking about?" The person says, "I had a triple bypass recently and it saved my life." Both things are true, and we put them both up on the mind map. Someone else says, "I have data about the money that's being spent." We'll put that up there, too.

At the core of this is our belief that the truth about these issues is knowable. People's behavior is programmed by their own experience, and what they believe to be true - independent of whether it is true or not. What's floating around in a community is an unbelievable mismatch of information, of misinformation, of stereotypes, of dogma, of prejudice. It's amazing, but it's reality. It's something we are going to have to live with if we are going to make any progress.

Often people put negative stuff up on the mind map. Eventually someone will comment on that.

We don't solicit negative
or positive stuff.
We don't evaluate anything.
We just say,
"What do you want up there?
Where do you want it?
Why are you saying that?"

We don't solicit negative or positive stuff. We don't evaluate anything. We just say, "What do you want up there? Where do you want it? Why are you saying that? What's your example?"

We give each stakeholder group seven or eight colored dots. We ask them to go up and put their dots on the trends that they consider most important: what do they really want to talk about?

We are not trying to set priorities. We are trying to create a forum for discussion. We are inviting people to go toward this mess, to own it, not to run away from it. To go up there and put your dots on the issue that you want to discuss, you have to pay attention to all the issues. You have to look at this complexity in a way that you would rather not. The map becomes the collective property of all the people in the room because everybody has touched it.

No two of these maps are ever the same. A lot of things overlap, but different communites have different issues. In 45 minutes or so, you get an overwhelming portrait of the world's troubles, as seen through the eyes of the people in this particular room at this particular time. We often ask the groups how they feel at that point. People will often report feeling down. And we let them be down. This is the end of the first day, five or six in the evening. If they were overwhelmed at the beginning, a lot of people are now in shock. Some people get headaches. It's a big deal. And we just sleep on it.

Beginning the search for common ground

In the morning we come back and reorganize the conference into stakeholder groups. Now people sit with people who have a similar stake. All the environmentalists sit together, all the administrators, the medical practitioners are at one table, the students at another, however we have structured these stakeholder groups. It's somewhat arbitrary but not irrelevant, because we are looking for seven or eight differentiated points of view about the issue. A lot of the stereotyping and the prejudice in a community is based on the beliefs about these other people and the kind of views they have about this situation.

We ask people to reinterpret the mind map in these new groups, even to redraw it from their own point of view, making a mini-map on a flip chart of the issues that they consider important. They can rethink the whole thing. They are not bound by anything that went before.

They have 45 minutes to figure this out, and four minutes to report what they have done and what it means, what they're doing now about the issues that they have selected, and what they would like to do in the future about those issues. Once again, everybody hears everybody. People are beginning to take some ownership for their issues. They are also sharing information about what is actually going on, how other people in the community see the issues, what their commitments or concerns are, and what are some of the things that they want to do in the future. People learn an enormous amount that they didn't know before.

Sometimes they discover that there is much more common ground then they ever thought, that certain issues are a concern for everybody, and nobody knew it. You only know what is bothering you. You don't know what bothers other people. If a poll taker comes to your house and says, "Please answer these four questions," you might give them a very different answer than the conclusion you come to when you are sitting talking to seven other people.

Proud and sorry

Once the stakeholder groups have reported out, we ask them to take a second crack at this mess. They've given us the cognitive part. Now we ask them to discuss their feelings with the other members of their stakeholder group: Looking at what you personally or members of your stakeholders group are doing right now about these issues, what makes you really proud? What are you doing or not doing right now about which you are really sorry?

The point is to get people to own up, not to finger-point, not to blame, not to breastbeat, not to do anything about it, but just to be in touch with what they are proud of and what they are sorry about.

This is usually a pivotal step in our conference, because of what people hear other people say. And there is an amazing release that comes with taking responsibility for your feelings.

People do own up to stuff. It's amazing. Not everybody all the time - in any group of eight tables there is going to be one or two that will externalize the issues and say, for instance, "I'm really sorry that the hospitals here don't give better service." You might hear that. It's a downer, it's deflating, it's de-energizing. What's interesting is that people will often make that very observation. They will say, "When those tables didn't really talk about what they're doing, I just felt deflated. I was uninterested."I heard that in a recent conference. That took them into a discussion about what it means to take ownership.

But when people do own up - when they say, for instance, "We are really sorry that we have neglected such and such a neighborhood for all these years," or "We are really sorry that there are long lines in the emergency room and we have not been able to speed up the service" - when people hear that, it's total magic. It's magical to be aware that other people, the people who are responsible in your community, know what the issues are and have a concern about them, because that is data that is not public.

Getting into reality

So once again we have a discussion: "How do you feel about what you have heard. What are your reactions? What did you learn?" People are getting closer and closer. They are getting more and more into reality as they go down this road and share what they have learned.

There is always somebody in the room who has a point of view that is very important. And you will always hear the contrary point of view. So if you have someone who is expressing a whole lot of good feeling, who says "This is really good, I'm seeing you in a whole new way," there will be somebody else who will say "Yeah, but there is a whole lot of racism in this community, and we're not really getting into that." That's real, too. And we don't do anything about it. We just hear it. We do not fix it.

It is important to facilitate in a way that accepts people, that just moves them along. The facilitator's basic task is managing the boundaries. We're not trying to manage toward a particular outcome. We're not expressing preferences for what people say, or what they do. We try to keep the conference as the property of this community, to allow the community to know, "For better or worse, this is who we are, and what we are. This is what we have to work with. If we're going to work together we've got to start accepting each other just the way we are. My job is not to change your mind. It's just to listen to you. And vice versa."

Once we've done that exercise, the impulse to action is building up in people. We re-structure the conference once again into mixed groups, generally the same groups that we started with. But they're in a different place now, because all the conversations that have taken place, all the points of view, are there in every group.

Creating a vision

Now we ask these mixed groups to create an ideal future for the community. They put themselves 10 or 20 years in the future, whatever the steering committee has decided, and imagine that it is that day. We'll say, "The day is April 22nd, it's the year 2005. You have made this into the kind of community you really want. We'd like you to write on a flip chart all the characteristics of this community."

Frequently the steering group has set out a set of problems. It might be the sort of health programs that we have, or the ways in which different health providers are cooperating, or the policy making mechanisms, or the services that are provided. We say, "Give us your ideal scenario. On another flip chart we would like you to list the barriers that you had to overcome in order to make this happen. When you have that in your head we would like you to prepare a seven-minute report. We would like you to present it creatively: give us the view from the future. People do instant dramas, pieces of art, pretend segments from "60 Minutes."

We like to give people two and a half hours, including lunch, so they have plenty of time to both eat and put it together. By about three o'clock on the afternoon of day two, they have come back to put on their ideal future scenarios. Before they start we ask at least one or two people in each group to take notes on what they hear as common themes, paying special attention to the themes in other people's scenarios that are the same as ones that you have considered. We ask them also to listen for any good ideas for programs, projects or policies that they hear - the sort of innovative ideas that they don't want to lose.

People do the most amazing presentations. All their idealism pours out. It's fun. They are often hilariously funny. Some of them are profound. Some people do ceremonies, rituals. The collective unconscious gets mobilized in a big way.

Generally every member of the group will be involved.

There is an element
of fantasy
about this.

There is an element of fantasy about this. People call it "play acting" and project that certain types of people, such as executives, won't do it. But we have yet to meet any set of people who refuse to do it.

Eight groups, seven minutes each, takes about an hour. Time discipline is very important - you have so many people, so many agendas, so many issues. We really move along. A lot of stuff does not get explored in depth in the way some people would like to explore it, but everything that needs to be said gets said.

Before they quit for the day, we ask the people to make three flip charts in their small groups. On the first one we ask them to describe what they consider the common future to be, based on what they have heard from all the scenarios - the common themes, what everybody wants. On a second sheet, they list the "hows," all the different innovative ideas, policies, plans, and programs that might bring about this common future. On the third sheet, they list unresolved differences.

We ask them, once they've made those three lists, to meet with another table, compare their lists, and merge them. We ask them to take their issues, cut them apart, and put them up on the wall under three headings: common futures, potential projects, unresolved differences. If there are eight tables there will be four sets under each, usually with a lot of overlap.

Then we go to dinner. Generally, as down as the group was the night before, at this point they are up.

Getting down to it

In the morning we revisit this wall. Group members rearrange the lists, bringing common themes together. We begin to see the common future for our community, as seen by everybody in this room - what we all want. Then: What are potential projects? We don't have to agree on them, or decide which comes first. We only have to agree that they are all things that have come out of this conference, things that people would like to see. Finally: What are the unresolved differences that we need to just acknowledge to each other?

This can lead to a powerful dialog. People have a lot of second thoughts - what did I really mean when I agreed to that? What are we saying to each other? They work all this out. Nobody has the answers. They are talking about it for the first time. The community is building understandings about what people truly are saying to each other.

If they hang up on an issue, we just move it to the unresolved differences list. We are not looking to refight the battle, we are just asking, "What is the reality?" We don't need to convince anybody.

We just want to say, "How do you want to report this? What do you want said? You can say everybody in the room agreed except Charlie. It's up to you." Sometimes they fiddle with the language and get it to where everyone will say, "Yeah, if it's expressed that way I can buy it."

We have had some fascinating discussions on that third day: What do we really mean by spirituality? Does that mean I'm locked into a formal religion? What do we mean when we say that we believe in preserving the family? Does that include non-traditional families? How about gay people who live together?" There is nothing you don't hear. And it's all okay.


Once they have confirmed where they have found common ground in their possible future, and what possible programs might get them there, we hope that we have two or three hours left for action planning.

Frequently we will have the stakeholders groups meet again for 45 minutes and look at what it is they would like to do, now, in the short run and the long run. What kind of resources do they need? Whose help do they need? What are their deadlines? What are their next action steps? We have them report all that out.

In the second round we let anybody meet with anybody, so that there is a lot of cross-disciplinary and cross-functional activity. Existing committees meet, or people form new task forces for particular purposes: "Five of us want to work on a new community center."

With two rounds of action planning, people hear again what their other committments are. They see who wants to do what, and they are in a better position to make deals.

The last step is for these final groups to report what their next steps are - how they are going to deal with all the stuff on the wall. Are they going to get back together again? When? Often some kind of coordinating structure has emerged, if it didn't already exist. We try to close with everybody understanding what happens next, and who is going to do what. We like to make those committments public.


We believe that Future Search works, and helps people begin true, deep, positive change in their communitites. To help with this, we have been building SearchNet, a nonprofit, voluntary matchmaking organization of over 300 consultants who work pro bono or for low fees in their own communities to help people run these conferences. The consulting community is looking for experience, and they want to make a contribution to the community.

People contact SearchNet and we perform a function. People ask, "How much does it cost?" The answer is, "Everything from nothing to a lot of money. How much do you have? How much experience do you want? It's whatever you can afford." We have been able to find people who will work under almost any conditions.

A lot of us in the consulting business have felt pretty frustrated in using our skills and techniques on serious public problems. I've never felt very successful in those settings. But through these conferences I feel very successful, very fulfilled. I know I've really helped a lot of people. Through hundreds of conferences, this process has proven to be a pretty good transition toward some furious planning across diverse communities.

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