Susan Sloan on Future Search for Establishing Common Ground for Action Planning

Greetings AEA365 enthusiasts! My name is Susan Sloan and I’ve worked as a professional evaluator for about 20 years, first at Duerr Evaluation Resources in Northern California and for the last six years in the field of public health in the Pacific Northwest. Over the years, I’ve participated in many planning groups–some successful and some not so much.

About three years ago I had the opportunity to learn about some large group facilitation tools that can be really helpful in moving a complex planning effort along very quickly. One such tool is Open Space Technology (see AEA365–Susan Kistler on Unconferences and Open Space Technology 10/1/11). Another is Future Search, a technique developed by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff. Future Search is a marvelous tool for getting the “whole system” in the room for the purpose of establishing common ground for action planning.

Lessons Learned: While traditional planning efforts are typically drawn out over a period of months or years, Future Search condenses the initial planning phase to a 2-1/2 day conference where individuals representing all key stakeholder viewpoints are invited to explore the past, present, and future of a key issue in a concentrated workshop that employs very specific steps. By the end of the conference, commitments to address the issue are strengthened, common ground has been established, creative strategies for moving forward have been identified, and people are ready to take action.

In our county, we brought together 70 individuals from across the spectrum of education, youth, social service, health care, families, business, etc. to focus on the issue of how to better serve children and youth with special health care needs (CYSHCN). A summary of our “Taking Action” Conference can be found at:

Rad Resource: The Future Search Network provides extensive resource support for finding out more about how to use this powerful planning tool: This year, the Organizational Development Network presented the Future Search Network with their 2011 Outstanding Global Work Award.

This Award recognizes an achievement which:

  • Takes place on a global level or in an arena primarily outside the USA
  • Breaks new ground or demonstrates an innovative approach
  • Actively leads or contributes to positive change in the world
  • Is sustainable
  • Has a well-articulated purpose
  • Demonstrates measurable change or progress toward change
  • May represent either a large or small intervention of significant impact or import

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4 thoughts on “Susan Sloan on Future Search for Establishing Common Ground for Action Planning”

  1. Pingback: Susan janoff | Mayasilver

  2. Hi Susan – So happy to hear of your great experience with Future Search. I served on the planning committe and as a participant for a Future Search event in 2001 with ASTD where Sandra Janoff was a co-facilitator. The planning committee wrote a special issue of Advances in Human Resource Development documenting conference findings. Citation for the first article is below. Not a lot of evaluators attending, but Darlene Russ-Eft was a participant. It was one of the best professional development experiences I’ve had. Jennifer Dewey
    Dewey, J.D., & Carter, T. (2003). Exploring the future of HRD: The first Future Search conference for a profession. Advances in Human Resource Development, 5(2), 1-12.

  3. Yes, there are definitely challenges but the greatest challenge is having an issue where there is commitment from a cross-section of the stakeholder community. Also, we contracted with a facilitator who had extensive experience using Future Search and also Open Space Technology. She was worth her weight in gold because the 3-day conference went very smoothly (costs were about $10,000 for pre-conference planning, facility rental, food catering, and conference facilitation). We spent a great deal of time with our facilitator finding a “ripe” issue. For us,it became very clear that CYSHCN was that issue. The stakeholders had already shown commitment and enthusiasm to move forward. We actually had so many interested stakeholders that it was difficult to narrow down our invitee list to 70. Future Search provides guidance on this to make sure that the spectrum of interests is represented at the conference. The conference is not about achieving consensus, so there should be widely differing perspectives in the room. It’s about bringing the entire system into the room so that real progress can be achieved. The goal of the conference is to find common ground for moving forward. Because of the level of commitment to this particular issue, conference participants have remained committed to achieving the vision that came out of the conference…even more so because of the increased needs that have ocurred due to the economic downturn. I hope this is helpful.

  4. Susan, thanks for the post. I checked out the FutureSearch site and skimmed a number of the examples where the approach has been applied. There’s good description about the process but not a lot about the facilitation challenges or much on tips for ensuring that participants are following through. I imaging that many efforts have difficulties here. Wondering if you might share any information or insights on your experiences in these areas. Thanks again!

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