Michael Herman
Opening Space Inviting Agility


Search Conference Participative Planning Method

Search Conferences are increasingly popular because they hold out the promise of commitment to and collective action toward agreed goals, directions, and change. --Merrelyn Emery, International Search Conference Developer

About Search Conference

The Search Conference is a participative planning method that enables people to create a plan for their organization's most desirable future -- a plan they take responsibility for carrying out themselves.

Purpose. In a Search Conference, people from all parts of an organization or community become a cooperative planning community. Together, they create a future based on shared ideals, that everyone can live for and work to implement. The Search Conference makes it possible for any kind of organization or community to thrive in the midst of rapidly changing conditions.

Perspective. The Search Conference brings to life the concept of open systems -- the view that every organization and community has an open and direct relationship with its larger environment. The "larger environment" includes all of the moving pieces of our global society -- global markets, population growth, changing social values, emerging technologies, political shifts, to name a few.

Applications. The Search Conference is effective for any group coming together around a common purpose and looking to the future. The Search Conference is ideal for the following systems . . .

History. The original Search Conference method has been used worldwide for more than 30 years for corporate and community planning, for cooperation on local and national issues. Fred Emery and Eric Trist introduced the Search Conference in 1959. The method has been researched and developed ever since by Fred and Merrelyn Emery of Australia. Merrelyn Emery brought the Search Conference into the U.S. and the Americas several years ago. She continues to train and develop conference managers through her workshops at the International Institute for Resource Management at New Mexico State University.

What Happens in a Search Conference

Real Work. In Search Conference people to do real work on important tasks. Participants take collectively responsibility for the planning tasks -- and the implementation outcomes. Conference managers create the best possible structure and process for participants to learn and work their way toward those outcomes.

Conference Participation. Twenty to fifty people from the organization are invited to participate based on their knowledge of the organization, openness to diverse perspectives, and potential for implementing the plan. Participants attend not as representatives but because of their importance to the planning and implementation tasks.

The idea is to get the right people in the room -- those whose presence is critical for whole-organization commitment to the final plans. During the Conference, these people become a community of planners. The number of participants is limited to a level where real community can emerge.

When we use the word "participative" in Search Conference, we are going beyond the way people often use the word. A Search Conference is not about giving input to higher authorities or other planners. The participants in a Search Conference, as a community, know the whole organization. Together, they actually develop and carry out the plan.

Conference Environment. The conference is normally two and a half days and two nights, preferably off-site and overnight. It's not the number of hours, but the spacing of the learning -- "soak time" -- that leads to new relationships, new commitments, and collaborative actions.

During the Conference, people work together mostly as a large conference community, with some small groups for specific tasks. Participants search through their external environment and internal organization, collecting, analyzing, and synthesizing data. In this process, people simultaneously learn and plan together.

The Search Conference environment builds the trust and openness needed for collaborative action. The most important ground rule of the conference is that all ideas are valid; participation is equal and open, regardless of hierarchy or position. People's words are spoken out loud and recorded on chart paper for all to see and hear.

The Search Conference has no presenters, lectures, speeches, keynote addresses, games or training sessions. There is nothing to make it look as if people are in a training workshop or traditional conference. People do not have to perform skits or do fantasy visions. And there is no need for people to feel confused or experience chaos in order for learning or change to occur.

Puzzle Work. The Search Conference is about jigsaw puzzle solving, not just problem solving. Puzzle learning is unlike problem solving because until each piece is individually located and placed, it's impossible to determine which piece must be found next. In a Search Conference each participant contributes knowledge and expertise about some piece of the overall puzzle, while the whole community focuses on future possibilities -- putting together the right pieces of strategy to produce the most desirable future.

The Search Conference Agenda

The typical Search Conference resembles a funnel in its design. It begins with the widest possible perspective, outside ourselves and our task, to explore possibilities. Then it narrows to specific key strategies and actions, widening again as the group diffuses and implements its plan back home.

Changes in the World Important to Our System's Future
Trends and Forces Directly Affecting Our System
Appreciating Our System's History:
Where We Came From
Our Current System: What to
Keep -- Discard -- Create
Desirable Future of Our
Action Planning
End of the Search Conference
Diffusion to the
Implementing the Plan

Learning About the Turbulent Environment. The first part of the conference explores the relationship between the system (organization or community) and its broad social environment in order to learn how turbulent social changes affect the system's future. This produces shared information important as a foundation for agreeing on a desirable future. It also creates a cooperative planning climate based on the sharing of human ideals that emerge from the exploration of the changing world.

Learning About the System. These activities engage people in developing their system's most desirable future five to ten years out. It starts with an appreciation of the system's history and an analysis of the current functioning of the system. Then people move directly to a discussion of the system's desirable future. The result is a prioritized list of desirable future points that everyone understands and is committed to bringing to action.

Action Planning. The last third involves people developing their plan for implementation. This includes identifying strategies to get around key constraints, developing goals and actions, discussing how to diffuse the plan to the broader community or organization, and getting organized democratically to take the next steps.

Principles at Work in Every Search Conference

Instead of constantly adapting to change, why not change to be adaptive? --Merrelyn Emery

Democratic Design Principle. The democratic design principle states that responsibility for the control and coordination of work should be located with the people who do the work, not at a higher level. In a Search Conference, participants are responsible for learning about the system and environment, doing the planning work, and carrying out their own plan.

The democratic design principle produces a fully working learning conference that takes responsibility for its own control, coordination, and outcome. This means that the people who participate in the Search Conference must be members of the system, not outsiders, because they will implement the new plan. It also means that participants do real work in the conference while conference managers are responsible for their own work of providing the best learning environment possible.

Ecological Learning. The search conference is based on research that shows that humans have evolved to naturally detect and extract information directly from their environment. The environment has an informational structure. It's loaded with real variance, constancy, and patterns -- in other words, meaning. Since the environment contains limitless information, any person with an intact perceptual system can access what they need. Humans have the natural, innate ability to directly perceive meaning from their environment. We sometimes call this common sense. Access to information is restricted only by habit, lack of confidence, and physical or psychological isolation from the informational field. Bureaucratic learning structures, like traditional conferences, have prevented people from exercising their innate abilities to the point that direct learning is like a muscle that has atrophied over time. The search conference is an environment in which people can flex their learning and planning muscles.

People do not naturally learn through the process of abstraction, but by directly extracting meaning from the environment. The process of searching through the environment and system is a process in which people use their natural abilities of finding variance, constancy, and patterns. There is no need for the academic approaches of abstraction (lofty visions and themes) or implication.

Planning for Turbulent Times. Today's global environment is turbulent, changing faster than our institutions. "Turbulence" refers to the way the current social environment is producing change by its own dynamism and consequently creating uncertainty for any system within it. The environment is no longer predictable or stable. When people see the list of inter-connected changes in the world go up on chart paper in the search conference, they appreciate the way all these changes effect one another and produce uncertainty for their own organization or community.

In a Search Conference people experience a learning environment in which they systematically explore their entire external environment. The purpose is to find ways to actively and creatively plan so that they are both responding to and changing their environment as they go. Adapting does not just mean getting faster or being more flexible; it means becoming actively adaptive -- developing a system's capacity to be a community that continuously learns from and changes its environment. A system must reduce turbulence by changing the conditions that surround it and by influencing its future direction. The only way to do this in a turbulent environment, is through the sharing of human ideals. To become adaptive, a system needs to make sure there is alignment between its own desirable future and the desirable future it has for the world. This ensures that there is a direct correlation between the desirable future of the system and its environment.

Conditions for Effective Communication. The Search Conference is designed and managed to produce effective communications. When people experience an open learning environment, appreciate that they are all humans with the same human concerns, and they all live in the same world, trust develops. As trust accumulates in the Search Conference, so do interpersonal relations strengthen and deepen, increasing the probability of mutual learning and network building.

Without this spiral of trust, learning, energy, and commitment, the process of implementation would be impossible. The presence of trust is tested towards the end of the search conference when participants self select into task forces to work on action plans. Each self selected subgroup is working on behalf of the whole community and must be trusted to do so.

Rationalization of Conflict: The Common Ground Approach. The Search Conference takes us beyond unanimity and consensus decision making to an environment in which people make their differences rational and base their future strategies on common ground on which they can agree. Conflict is an important feature of the Search Conference. It is not avoided. In fact, rationalizing it means to take it seriously and truly understand and clarify the differences people have. This is important because while these differences may not be part of the strategy the group adopts, they continue to exist within the community during implementation. Experience shows that when conflicts become clear and respected by the group, they diminish over time.

When small group work is reported and integrated, two questions are raised. First, questions of clarification of the report and then a question as to whether anyone cannot live with or is not prepared to work towards any item on any of the reports. If there is such a response, it is debated fully in large group. If there is substantial disagreement, a couple of people from different sides may be sent out to negotiate the point, while the rest get on with the task of integration and agreement. If negotiation fails, the item goes on a disagreed list. It ceases to be part of the further work of the community.

The aim of rationalization of conflict is to precisely establish common ground and to know exactly where the thin line between agreement and disagreement is. Groups with a history of conflict tend to assume a greater area of conflict and less common ground than actually exists. Once the common ground and its boundaries are clarified, the community can continue work towards its goals on the basis of the common ground regardless of its size.

This paper was adapted by MichaelHerman, from the original by [Bob Rehm and Nancy Cebula].