Marvin Weisbord

on the "Future Search" in building healthy communities

interviewed by Joe Flower


This article was published as part of the Healthcare Forum's Healthy Communities Action Kits, Module 4, in 1994
International Copyright 1994 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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What doesn't work

I have been in the business of trying to help large systems change for over 30 years. As Edison said, "I know 8000 things that don't work."

Demonstration projects don't work. Pilot projects don't prove anything except to the pilots.

Force-feeding expert solutions to people doesn't work. Telling people how to fix it, even though the advice is really good, doesn't work.

Problem-solving exercises involving huge numbers of people don't work, when they get to choose the specific problems they will work on, because increasingly the problems worth solving are systemic problems.

Large systems change strategies by and large don't work. We can conceptualize the problems, and even the solutions, but too often we don't know how to implement the solutions.

For instance, for quite a while the leading candidate as a change strategy was to have everyone go through a training event, learning concepts and skills. That hasn't had much impact. As they say in "Guys and Dolls," "The medicine doesn't get anywhere near where the trouble is." There has been an assumption that our problems are largely educational. We spend billions on training people, on the theory that they don't know what to do. By and large such strategies have failed. Training to take leadership, training people for teamwork, teaching everyone the seven habits or the five precepts, by and large don't work. That's just not the way change takes place. If it did we would all be following the golden rule

Another one was the team development theory, the idea that we could work in real-time on leadership skills. But team development theory is limited by the dynamic interaction of the particular team. There is no relation to what's going on with the larger group

Future Search

My learning lab these days is what we call the "Future Search" conference. It has evolved from the work of, among others, Fred Emery, Eric Trist, Ronald Lippitt, and Eva Schindler-Rainman. People are using it all over the world, and it works. In the book Discovering Common Ground I have 35 international co-authors reporting their experiences with it. It allows all parts of a system to come together, examine their differences, set them aside, and discover the agenda they hold in common. It lasts 48 hours across three days. The book that I am writing about it is called,Getting The Whole System In The Room, because that's what I try to do.

I've been asking myself: Why is it that we have not been able to get as much sustainable change in these other ways than we have in this particular one? And this is key: We won't do a future search conference unless we can get a significant cross-section of the system in the room. I'll just say, "No." Because you can't influence anyone who isn't there, and they can't influence you.

What is the whole system? Nobody knows, but it has to be at least a significant cross-section of the people who have some stake in whatever the issue is. You need some critical mass, more than those who usually meet

We usually do 64 people, 8 tables of 8, simply because eight is a number that can manage themselves without facilitation, and when you get more than 70 people in the room, it gets difficult to manage.

What people do once you've brought them together matters

If you just problem-solve, if you say, "Let's pick the three most important ones," and so forth, it's very energizing and democratic, you can organize coalitions, pick what you want to work on. But nobody gets any commitment to what the other groups or task forces are doing. You can get the whole system in the room, but then you need to provide ways for everyone to contribute to the comprehensive picture.

So that's the second key: put things in a global context. Get the system to build a portrait of itself. In our conferences, we start with what's happened in last 30 years in world, what's happened in your lives, what's happened in your community. Then we move to what's going on right now that is affecting the community. We build a visual map of what `s affecting community

Then people look at it, and go put colored dots on what they think is important. We make them face it physically, own it, touch it. The task is both cognitive and psychological

Third: we help people take responsibility for their experience, their concerns, their disappointments and conflict. As we say, "Own it, don't moan it." It's not helpful to re-fight the old battles. But it's also not helpful to solve small bits of the puzzle prematurely. It is helpful to get all these emotions about the complexity out in the open. It is functional for a group to have that experience together. It is not functional to stay there, or to get there by re-fighting all the conflicts and failing once more to resolve them. Instead we work to make them known, and get them accepted as a part of the reality

If we really want permanent and sustainable change, we must stop trying to change each other. We have start accepting each other just the way we are. We only change ourselves, and that's voluntary. Accepting each other is itself a very large kind of change. We have found that people can do that and will do that

Going to the depths together works -- if you can also go to the heights together. In dramatizing ideal futures, people express euphoria and joy. Both poles are neither sustainable nor functional. But they provide a basis for dialogue between the polarities. To experience them together is to see the possibilities within the community

When we get to what are the common themes in our future scenarios, we can get a very inspiring list that brings us back to the reality between the two poles, the reality of what we really do agree on. In our conferences people see that you can't chew gum and whistle. Eighty percent of time and energy goes into the 20 percent of issues that are intractable, at the expense of all the things that we all want to work on and can't get to. People discover that they have a big common agenda. The differences may be difficult, even unbridgeable, but they are much smaller than the shared world

It brings us to a sense of having a common agenda, a common ground (along with the awareness of differences) in a context where people have access to each other and can do something different if they choose to -- they can do it right there in real time, because the right people are in the room.

That's the whole system: enough people to make a start on these real issues. The key is getting access to each other right at the point where you have reached a new understanding

There is no way to account for the implementations from these conferences. If you can build wide support across lines of race, age, geography, money, power, and religion, and build common understanding, people will find that they can do a lot of things across those lines.

For a high and unknown percent of our social problems, the issue is not lack of skill or will, it's lack of access to an understanding of the problems in a deeper way, and access to others who can make a difference. These are problems that people can do something about with the tools that they have. We have a huge social agenda that is not being worked on because people don't know its workable, that they have the tools.

We measure our success by how many people are willing to take responsibility to do something, how many are finding other people to do it with, and how long they keep going

The relationship of Future Search to the political process is interesting. You can get corporate executives involved, or appointed government officials, but elected officials are very leery of open forums that they can't control. We see a whole other level of citizen action, dealing with issues in which people can't wait for government

We have established a network called SearchNet of consultants who want to work this way. We teach them, and in turn they donate their services to their communities and to not-for-profits to run conferences, pro-bono, for low fees.

Groups have started in a number of cities. We get 12 or 15 consultants, and they recruit an equal number of client organizations. We put on a 3-day search with them and set up review meetings.

That's my large systems change challenge these days: to try to get 1000 consultants to commit to run a 3-day event every couple of months. It's the only process we've found that consistently works.

A full interview with Marvin Weisbord, including a detailed description of the "Future Search" process | Healthier Communities | Articles | Main Page