Sandra Janoff & Marvin Weisbord

on Saturday, 02 June 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews

Co-directors of Future Search Network

Welcome to Future Search Network On Line!

Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff have led meetings for decades in the business, community, education, health care, science and technology sectors. They co-direct the international Future Search Network and are co-authors of Future Search: An Action Guide, 2nd Edition (2000), and Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! (2007). They have managed planning meetings in Africa, Asia, Europe, India and North and South America and trained more than 3000 people worldwide in using their principles. They are members of the European Institute for Transnational Studies and the Organization Development Network.

Marvin Weisbord consulted with business firms, medical schools and hospitals from 1969 to 1992. He was a partner in Block Petrella Weisbord, Inc. and a member of NTL Institute for 20 years and is a fellow of the World Academy of Productivity Science. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 from the Organization Development Network which voted his book Productive Workplaces (1987) among the five most influential books of the past 40 years. He also is author of Organizational Diagnosis (1978), Discovering Common Ground (1992), and Productive Workplaces Revisited (2004).

Sandra Janoff, a psychologist and consultant, has worked with corporations, government agencies, and communities worldwide on issues of globalization, sustainability, and humane practices. She was a staff member in Tavistock conferences sponsored by Temple University in Philadelphia and The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in OxfordEngland. She also has run training workshops in Systems-Oriented group dynamics. Sandra taught mathematics and chemistry from 1974 to 1984 in an experimental high school and ran workshops in Pennsylvania schools on alternative practices in education. She is co-author with Yvonne Agazarian of "Systems Thinking and Small Groups" for theComprehensive Textbook of Group Psychotherapy. Her research on the relationship between moral reasoning and legal education was a lead article in the University of Minnesota Law Review.

Interview with Sandra Janoff and Marvin Weisbord 

1. What is a Future Search?

We think of Future Search in three ways: (1) a meeting method; (2) a philosophy and theory of facilitating; and (3) a global change strategy in which anyone can participate by running a meeting with integrity. Future Search enables people to cooperate in complex situations of high conflict and uncertainty and to go beyond problem-solving to make systemic improvements in their communities and organizations. People have run Future Searches on practically all social, technological and economic issues in North and South America, Africa, Australia, Europe, India and South Asia. Participants achieve four outputs from a single meeting--shared values, a plan for the future, concrete goals, and an implementation strategy.  

Future Search relies on tested principles for helping people collaborate despite differences of culture, class, gender, age, race, ethnicity, language, and education. The method works equally well with communities, schools, hospitals, churches, government agencies, foundations and NGO’s. Because Future Search is culture free, requiring only that participants share their experiences, it has helped thousands of people carry out action plans once considered impossible. Four principles underlie the techniques:

  1. Get the “whole system” in the room--meaning people with authority, resources, expertise, information and need.
  2. Put the focal issue in global perspective, helping each person to see a big picture that includes the views of all others and to talk about the same world.
  3. Seek common ground and desirable futures, treating problems and conflicts as information rather than the action agenda.
  4. Charge participants with self-management and responsibility for acting on what they learn. 

2. How did you develop this methodology for meetings?

This story is told in detail in Marv’s book Productive Workplaces Revisited (Jossey-Bass, 2004). Future Search, the method, was first described by Marv in a Planning Review article in 1982.  Many practitioners taught themselves the method after reading Chapter 14 of the 1987 edition of Productive Workplaces. The premise of that book was that learning “to get everybody improving whole systems” was the challenge of the millennium. Techniques that fell short of that objective would prove unsatisfying (not to say unsuccessful) for anyone who sought to actualize values of dignity, meaning and community as central to economic success in work life.   

Discovering Common Ground (Berrett-Koehler, 1992) brought together the experiences of 32 authors world-wide who had worked with participative methods, including several Australians. That book confirmed the validity of the principles underlying Future Search. Future Search, the Network, came into being a year later when 100+ practitioners put up $100 each for the privilege of doing pro bono community service and sharing their learning. The Network quickly grew to about 350 members, and there it has stayed ever since. For information on the pioneers on whose research and theories Future Search was built, see the following link:

3. How does this system of running meetings compare with other methods?  

Favorably. It involves a cross-section of people with authority, resources, expertise, information and need. Few meetings include all those need to make and act on decisions in the same dialogue, responding to the same issues at the same time.

4. Is your system different or similar to strategic planning used by organizations to develop vision and mission objectives?  

Hard to say. There are a thousand methods, all similar in some respects. We differentiate them in three ways: who does the work; the balance of left brain/right brain engagement; how long it takes to get anywhere. You can put methods on a continuum from expert consultants doing all the work to top executives doing all the work to involving “everybody” in doing the work. You can build another continuum from relentless rationality (dozens of questions to be answered and detailed data collected) to open-ended creativity with expressive planning scenarios involving art, music, theatre and dance, and all imaginable permutations and combinations. Finally, strategic planning can run from a few days to many months. We opt for (1) involving “everybody,” (2) using a mix of left and right brain activities, and (3) getting to vision and action plans in less than 3 days.

5. Can you give an example of how this system was applied and its outcomes in a community and a business setting.

There are hundreds, widely documented in our book Future Search: An Action Guide (Berrett-Koehler 2000), on the web at, and in numerous journal articles.

Business examples: Whole Foods Markets, the world’s largest natural foods supermarket chain, has used Future Searches every five years since 1988 to involve a cross-section of employees in strategic planning. Haworth Corporation, the global furniture manufacturer, compressed months of strategic planning into less than 3 days, including in the meeting both customers and suppliers, a feat, according to chairman Richard Haworth, that few imagined could be done. IKEA, the global furniture retailer based in Sweden, used Future Search to rethink its world-wide supply chain, resulting in a restructuring of corporate staff functions, involvement of customers in new product design, and reduction by several months of the time from drawing board to point of sale. IKEA has since done several Future Searches including one in China to improve various aspects of business planning.

Community Case: Ho’opono Koalau Loa


For centuries, the Hawaiian Islands, relatively isolated from the rest of the world, maintained their traditional way of life. During the 19th century life in Hawaii changed drastically. Missionaries and traders brought foreign diseases to which the islanders had no immunity. Hawaiians died in staggering numbers. By mid-century the native population had fallen 90 percent, from an estimated 500,000 to about 50,000.To save her people from extinction, Queen Emma started The Queen’s Medical Center, now Hawaii's largest health facility. When she died in 1885, Queen Emma left vast land holdings to support healthcare for Hawaii's people. Over the years the Hawaiian way of life altered dramatically as Western values of competition, individualism, and power clashed with Hawaiian values of harmony and cooperation.

More than a century later, the legacy of Westernization was evident in continuing social and medical problems. According to Queen Emma Foundation statistics, ethnic Hawaiians, 12.5 percent of the state's population, accounted for 50 percent of teen pregnancies and 44 percent of asthmatics under age 18. They had the highest diabetes rate for those 35 years and older (44 percent); 42 percent were overweight; and 40 percent were acute or chronic drinkers. Their young people had a juvenile arrest rate 33 percent higher than other citizens.

The heaviest concentration of ethnic Hawaiians lived in Ko’olau Loa on Oahu's north shore. In 1996 the Queen Emma Foundation staff held town meetings and found that in addition to medical care, education and jobs, people wanted their communities to better reflect traditional values that had eroded over the decades. The Foundation funded a Future Search to help people reconnect with traditional values of community wholeness and cooperation in all areas of local life.

Future Search Participants

High School Students, Teachers, Native Hawaiian healers, Western Healers, Clergy, Community Associations, Social and Cultural Agencies, Business People, Activists, and Residents of all ethnicities.


§ The planning committee from the 1996 Future Search became a 501(c)3 nonprofit, to address grass roots issues. In 2005 they had been meeting monthly for nine years and called themselves Malama Ohana (“caring extended family”).

§ Projects included organizing annual community get-togethers, improving signage and awareness of highway safety on the road, reducing traffic deaths from more than eight per year to two, addressing literacy and drug abuse problems, and helping to sustain the monthly health fair on the hospital grounds, that was now in its 8th year. They were connected to the Hawaiian culture programs in the high school and at Brigham Young University-Hawaii (see below).

§ “Hawaiians have a very poor health record. We are among the highest of all ethnic groups in cancer, AIDS, high blood pressure, diabetes - all the diseases that kill. It's very grim. But things are now moving in a positive direction. The network is spreading. We are experiencing more concentration on health and a greater willingness to get involved.” --Gladys Pu'aloa-Ahuna, member of Malama Ohana

§ “We are changing our nursing curriculum to emphasize patients and families as partners. The Ko'olau Loa experience was the turning point. It's a whole new mindset."   --Laura Armstrong, Chief of the Community Health Nursing Division in the State Department of Health

§ Hawaiian values and practices are integrated with the Western medical model. Kahuku Hospital, Ko'olau Loa's main medical center, runs a community-wide effort to focus on prevention and good health practice, including a monthly Health Fair/Farmer's Market where they screen for diseases and teach Hawaiian healing. 

§ A New Day-Care Center - Maxine Kahaulelio, a local mother and cook at Hau'ula Elementary School, had fought for six months to keep the Kamehameha Preschool Program alive after it lost its funding. Applying what she learned at the Future Search about citizen involvement, she called a parents' meeting. Adding educators, health professionals and funders, she built a Board that got a $40,000 grant from the John A. Burns Foundation. They named themselves the Ko'olau Loa Early Education Program (KEEP). A few months later, Na Kamalei KEEP opened with 30 preschoolers, a full-time teacher, and two aides. "We started with nothing, and now we have a school going." said John Kaina, a Board member.

  • Lea Albert, principal of Kahuku High School, ran a Future Search, three months after the community Future Search. There, 140 parents, teachers, students, business people, and staff considered the implications, for public education, of the common ground identified in the earlier conference. As a result, Kahuku High added many community-based themes to its curriculum, such as healthcare as a future local industry, the integration of Western and traditional medicine, protection of the environment, agriculture, eco-tourism, water and waste management, and housing.

§ Students began attending neighborhood association meetings. Christian Palmer, a Kahuku High senior said, "We want to offer a youth point of view. The Ho'opono Ko'olau Loa conference was an eye opener. My friends and I realized our community's future is determined by the people who are active and interested."

§ Two years after the Future Search, Brigham Young University-Hawaii opened the Center for Hawaiian Language and Cultural Studies, recognizing the experience of indigenous Hawaiians as a legitimate area of scholarship.

6. What are some of the observations you have made about local government approaches to community consultation?  

We have noticed that in some democratic countries elected officials have difficulty with open dialogues and sharing air time with 60 or 70 other people. They are reluctant to speak for themselves. Many want to control the conditions for the meeting. As a result many communities, impatient with the slowness of government action on key planning issues, use Future Search to take responsibility for themselves.

7. What have been some of the difficulties that you have encountered in running Future Search sessions? How do you gauge that people’s engagement is authentic?

The main issues are (a) the right people, those who can act if they choose without asking permission from anybody not present; and (2) an interdependent group, people who cannot act alone but need each other to do what they want to do. If either condition is not met, there is no good reason to have the meeting. If good conversation is all that is desired there are many simpler ways to do that. 

We have no methods for assuring authenticity or openness. We provide people with opportunities most never had before. The fact that many people tend to show their best selves under the right conditions is what keeps us going.

8. Is Future Search offered in Australia? Can you site examples of where the program was conducted and the outcomes achieved?

Many good Australian cases. We have trained more than 100 people down under, and they have done dozens of conferences. We will conduct a public workshop in the Sydney area in October 2008. Joe Bowers () is putting up a web site for an Australian Future Search Network affiliate. Others who know the method include: Verna Blewett () in Adelaide, Joy Humphries (), and Glenyss Barnes () in Victoria, and Lynda Jones () in Tasmania.

9. What are the fees you charge for the running of such a program?

That depends on the planning needed. Figure from 6 days each for a team of two to 20 days each, and multiply by the day rate. We usually charge top rates to business firms and reduced fees for NGO’s and communities with limited resources. Future Search Network members will put on conferences anywhere in the world, any culture, any language, for whatever people can afford.