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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM24-PDW6: Using Future Search to Address Wicked Systemic Problems


Professional Development Workshop: PDW 6
Monday 1 July 2024
9.15am to 1.00pm EEST
CE Credits Available

Using Future Search to Address Wicked Systemic Problems

Facilitator: Dr Jeff Axelbank

Brief Description
This highly interactive and experiential workshop introduces Future Search (FS), a proven systemic intervention that can be applied to government and private organizations, communities, school districts, human and social services, and healthcare systems. Future Search was developed by Marv Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, and is based on the sociotechnical work of Emery and Trist. By getting “the whole system in the room” - including multiple stakeholder groups - FS leads to paradigm shifts, out-of-the-box thinking, and the building of new coalitions and relationships. “Wicked problems” have so much complexity that, despite study by experts and attempts at new policy or laws, they defy solutions and problems remain. This makes them particularly suited for a method such as FS that takes a wide systemic view. Participants will learn about FS and experience its components as it applies to a problem chosen by the group. I will work to invite people from the local community in Bulgaria so that local issues can be considered, and FS can be applied to them.

Target Audience:
Administrators, Consultants, Policy-makers, Community Leaders, Government Officials, other stakeholders



Curriculum Content:
Most of the problems plaguing the world can be classified as “wicked problems,” problems with so much complexity that they defy easy solutions. Issues such as poverty, the income and wage gap, affordable housing, poor education, rising healthcare costs, political polarization, discrimination of all types, intractable international conflicts, and climate change seem to have no end in sight. Public and private organizations can also face wicked problems, such as planning for the future in a turbulent economic environment, deciding on the design of a new product, merging two organizations, or starting a new business.
The major shortcomings of applying traditional approaches to wicked problem are the failure to consider the whole system, the error of not including all stakeholders to the problem when designing solutions, and the problem of telling people what the solution is rather than stakeholders co-creating them. Future Search avoids all three of these fatal flaws.
This workshop introduces Future Search (FS), a proven effective method that can be applied to wicked problems in a way that leads to paradigm shifts, out-of-the-box thinking, and the building of new coalitions and relationships. These benefits accompany the primary benefit of FS: helping an organization or community and their stakeholders move forward together to find solutions to wicked problems with consensus and commitment. In addition, the impact that FS has on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) will be covered.

Future Search is based on group dynamics, systems theory, and social psychology, and is a process that “gets the whole system in the room” to discover the common ground that exists in multiple stakeholders, and harnessing this to spur these stakeholders to take action to address the wicked problem they’re addressing. Since its introduction in the 1980s, the method has been used hundreds of times, in sectors as diverse as business, communities, health systems, human services, religious congregations, school districts, higher education, environment, and government. In addition to a design for how to get stakeholders together for planning and action, FS also encompasses a facilitation style, based in part on the differentiation and integration theory of Yvonne Agazarian.

Future Search is based on four principles:

1. Get the whole system in the room (people with: authority on the issue, resources such as funding sources, expertise, information, and need)
2. View the whole system before planning – getting people to see their interdependence, beyond their “silos”
3. Focus on discovering common ground and the future, not on conflicts and the past – seeing conflicts as data, rather than as needing to be resolved
4. Self-management and responsibility for action – leading to accountability as well as leadership development

If the four principles are followed carefully, the results are profound.

1. A “common ground agenda” of 8-12 items to which everyone agrees (unanimity).
2. Complete buy-in to the common ground agenda and commitment to implementing it, so no need to go out and “sell” it to stakeholder groups, since they all had a hand in creating it.
3. Action plans to implement each element of the common ground agenda.
4. A structure to support the implementation of the common ground agenda.
5. A follow-up structure to insure implementation of the common ground agenda.

But there are also some important side-effects that come along:

  • Participants learn how to conduct productive meetings
  • Leadership and coalitions develop
  • Funding opens up, since funding sources participate
  • Complaints about views being ignored are minimized
  • People learn about other perspectives and initiatives they might not be aware of
  • It builds community and increases interdependence
  • Leaders love this method because they know the community is 100% behind them.

A Future Search takes about 16 hours, spread over three days –the first day is an afternoon or evening, followed by a full day, and ending with the morning of the third day. The highly interactive and experiential FS conference has five parts: review of the past, survey of current trends, envisioning a desired future, discovering common ground, and action planning. During the FS conference, participants meet in small and large groups. In small mixed groups made up of representatives of each stakeholder group, each small group is essentially a microcosm of the whole system. They also meet in their stakeholder groups and as one large group.

In this PDW, participants will learn these elements of FS, will role play acting as a planning committee, and experience the survey of current trends segment. We will discuss the FS facilitation style, DEI aspects of FS, and contrast with other large group interventions.

Learning Objectives:
1. Participants will be able to identify the four principles of Future Search.
2. Participants will be able to list the categories of stakeholders in a Future Search Conference.
3. Participants will be able to list the parts of a Future Search conference and the tasks for the planning team.
4. Participants will be able to contrast Future Search with other large group interventions such as Open Space and World Café.

Schedule/Activity Format:
10 minutes – Introduction to Future Search, why Future Search?
40 minutes – Lecturette on Future Search (principles, conditions for success, how to define stakeholder groups, parts of a FS conference, the FS planning process
40 minutes – Small groups: brainstorm possible applications of FS to specific situations/organizations. Select one and act as planning committee to define the title of the FS, and identify stakeholder groups
30 minutes – Small groups report out, large group discusses the situations. Vote on one scenario to work on in more detail in the second half
(15 minutes – Break)
15 minutes – Large group discusses the chosen scenario/application for Future Search to finalize the stakeholder groups. Stakeholder roles are assigned to each participant
40 minutes – Large group creates a mind-map of current trends affecting the system, with participants in the role of stakeholders
10 minutes – Vote as stakeholder groups using color-coded dots on which trends most need to be addressed
20 minutes – Votes tabulated and discussed by large group in detail
25 minutes – Processing of the role playing experience, question and answer about Future Search, discussion of complications, indications and contraindications for using Future Search, and contrast with other large group interventions such as Open Space and World Café
10 minutes – Summary and closing

Teaching Format:

  • Case Illustrations/Examples
  • Group Exercises
  • Lecture/Presentation
  • Participant discussion
  • Participant role play or rehearsal
  • Question and answer

Biographical Summary:

Jeffrey Axelbank, Psy.D. is a psychologist working for over 30 years in both clinical and organizational consulting roles. He has worked with schools, community groups, companies, and organizations on such issues as navigating changes and transitions, conflicts between subgroups, corporate culture, team development, leadership development, strategic planning, and succession planning. Dr. Axelbank specializes in working with diverse large groups, whole system interventions involving multiple stakeholder groups, using methods such as Future Search, Open Space, and World Café. He earned a doctorate at the Rutgers University, and completed specialized training as a consultant in the Organization Program at the William Alanson White Institute.