Queen's University IRC

Exploring “The Whole Elephant” and Finding Common Ground

An Interview with Marvin Weisbord, Queen’s IRC Facilitator
Interviewed by Queen’s IRC

May 1, 2004

He is a major mover in organization development and, we are proud to say, a Queen’s IRC Facilitator. Marvin Weisbord is also author of the seminal books “Productive Workplaces and Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities” (co-authored with Sandra Janoff). A “future search” is a planning meeting that helps people quickly transform their capabilities into actions, bringing together those with resources, expertise, formal authority, and need. Through two-and-a-half days of dialogue, they discover their common ground and make concrete action plans.

Recently we talked to Marvin about the “future search” planning process, its applications in organizations, how it helped Ikea and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration make massive and rapid transformations. and how managers, policymakers, and consultants can get involved in the international Future Search Network.

What is the overall goal of future search?

It is a way of putting control of the system in the hands of people who have the biggest stake in it. We think of future search as a way to help the system to transform its capability for action. When a future search is successful, people can do things on Monday morning they considered impossible on Friday. People empower themselves when they get the opportunity to do things they’ve always wanted to, but haven’t had the chance.

What are the principles underlying future search?

There are four key principles, which are backed up by years and years of research and experience.

The first is to get the whole system in the room. By “whole system” we mean people with authority, with information, with resources, with expertise, and with need. Get the people with these qualities who are interdependent all in the one place at one time to dialogue with one another.

Number two is to have everyone explore together what we call “the whole elephant” – that’s a reference to the old Sufi story of the blind men and the elephant. Each one has a piece of the puzzle. Collectively, they have the whole puzzle. But no one of them can see the whole thing. So when you have the whole system in the room, you then have the potential to get the whole picture that no one person can assemble. We spend a lot of time in future search doing that before we try to figure out what to do. We are trying to get everybody talking about the same world, and that’s a world that includes all of their perceptions, and all of their experiences.

The third future search principle is to focus on the future and the common ground rather than the problem list or the conflicts. This means to put conflicts and problems into the background and to treat them as information, rather than action agenda items. So nothing is swept under the rug and nothing is considered irrelevant. But the emphasis is on discovering where people are already together and what it is they want to do.

The fourth principle is to have people take responsibility for managing themselves and their perceptions and decisions and action planning. In other words, we strongly invite the participants to be responsible rather than have facilitators take charge of what happens. In future search, the facilitators don’t organize or analyze information for participants. Participants already know how to do that, but don’t always know that they know.

How did future search begin?

In the late 1970s and early 80s I was doing a lot of OD consulting, and it seemed like the wrong people were always in the room, or it was too soon, or it was too late – there were a lot of dilemmas with meetings. In those years I was hanging out with Eric Trist, who was at University of Pennsylvania, and Ron Lippitt, who was at Bethel. Their work really caught my attention and I began applying a lot of their ideas in the corporations and medical schools where I was consulting. I learned a lot from the two of them and I got very stimulated by the things they had done. That was when I began to ask myself, “What would the strategic planning meeting look like that really got people committed, motivated and able to act together without having to ask permission from anyone outside the room?”

I started to think if you can get in one room those people who could act together if they chose to without having to get permission from anyone who wasn’t there, things would really start to happen – or you would at least understand why they weren’t going to.

What are the applications for future search in the workplace?

There are three things you can get out of a future search. One is a shared understanding of where everyone is together, and what it is that everyone in the room wants – that is, the common ground. The second is an action plan. The third is an implementation strategy. You can get all or any of these depending upon your objectives.

In the workplace situation, future search is a very good umbrella for strategic planning of any kind because you not only get a plan, but you get immediate action steps. You have the beginnings of the implementation folded into the meeting, and because all the people are there, you have commitment at all levels where you need commitment – you don’t have to go and sell it to anybody. And that’s a big advantage.

In the last year or so we used future search twice at Ikea to do a complete redesign of global systems, worldwide systems involving thousands of people and products. We made quite a heady discovery. It is rather contradictory to socio-technical thinking and theory, but if you can get the whole system in the room – which means bringing the whole environment together, the organization’s suppliers, customers, etc. – and you have all the people with authority there, you can rethink the whole system and start down a whole new track in 18-20 hours.

(For more information see “The Ikea Story” at www.futuresearch.net/method/applications/sectors.cfm?sid=1 )

At the Federal Aviation Administration not so many weeks ago, we had people looking at the whole air traffic control system of the United States and making decisions about how to manage that system in a whole new way. Some have already been implemented. This is a new insight for me: there is a simple, fast way to redesign work systems in cases where nobody really has their arms around the whole thing, and change is happening too fast to “study” it.

Is future search best for large applications, or can it work for departments or smaller work groups?

It has been very effective for departmental issues and problems when the department sponsors of the conference invite interdependent people from surrounding organizations – up, down, and sideways. This is because in order to change a work system – and this isn’t always obvious – it has to change its relations with the larger system of which it is a part. So if the department’s members only meet with one another on their internal problems, they can’t really change their system because it is always subject to the policies, procedures and relationships it is embedded in. Unless the department can influence those other relationships, it can’t get significant change in its own work structures. That’s why team-building tends to drive people deeper into their relationships with each other. It doesn’t give them much leverage on the whole organization.

What you discover when you do this kind of work is that the significant problems are always outside the boundaries of the organization, and even a lot of interpersonal conflicts can be traced to the structural elements outside the unit that the people don’t have much leverage over. Where there is a personal clash it is always an exacerbated by structural issues, meaning who is allowed to do what, the policy by which you are operating, the norms, etc. A lot of times people will personalize goal conflict. In future search, we try to legitimize all of the various objectives and goals that people have. This means putting conflicts and problems into the background and treating them as information. We try to get people to accept their differences as natural and inevitable and something to be lived with, rather than a problem to be solved by one party or another changing his or her mind, personality, or leadership style.

What new discoveries have you made since the 2000 edition of Future Search?

There have been several in terms of the methodology itself. What continues to evolve is all small wrinkles on how to do the common ground and action planning, which have always been the stickiest part of the meeting.

The way we do the common ground exercise now has more focus on what everyone wants – whereas before we used to also make project lists of how we are going to get there. Now we have pretty well given up on the “hows” and we just look at what does everyone want and get that up on the wall chart.

Once we have the common ground, we ask people to write statements so people outside the room could understand what was agreed to. By writing it out and not just having bullet points on flip charts, people really get the nuance, the essence of what people are saying to one another. When there are six or eight or ten of them together you get what sounds like a mission statement and statement of values. From these statements we build the action plans. We then say, ‘Who wants to work on which of these Common Ground issues to translate them into policy, procedure, and programs?”

What desires and wishes do you have for future search?

Sandra Janoff and I see future search as a learning laboratory; we don’t see it as a done deal. People can learn a lot at these meetings that they can transfer to other meetings and other settings. We think the principles have more applications than just our method and we think they have influenced many of the other large group methods. We are just hoping to continue and get more and more people to do this around the world. It is fascinating to me that people in so many different cultures are able to do this, somehow projecting their own cultural stuff onto future search. It’s like a big empty bottle into which they can pour their own practices, beliefs, norms, and meaning. That’s pretty wonderful; so we just want to keep that top spinning.

Is the method spreading internationally through the Future Search Network?

Yes, many managers, consultants, and policymakers are part of the Future Search Network, working to help make a more open, inclusive, and sustainable world. FSN is a voluntary, world-wide network offering public, non-profit, and NGO future search processes and training for whatever people can afford.

It’s a wonderful way to define meaning in work and to give back to the community. As well, you meet and co-operate with like-minded people who might otherwise be seen as competitors. It’s a great network.

For more information about future search, go to: www.futuresearch.net

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