A Stone in the Water

Marvin Weisbord Posted by Marvin Weisbord.

Marvin Weisbord is coauthor of Control Less, Lead More, and author of Organizational Diagnosis, Productive Workplaces, editor/coauthor of Discovering Common Ground, and coauthor of Future Search. He is co-direcor, along with Sandra Janoff, of Future Search Network (formerly SearchNet), an international non-profit dedicated to community service, colleagueship, and learning.

A Stone in the Water

Roger McLassus, Wikimedia Commons

In the spring of 1991, OD (Organization Development) consultant Marilyn Sifford cornered Marv at a local Philadelphia Region OD Network meeting. “A bunch of us are connected to a social action group,” she said. “We would like to learn future search.” She was referring to an impactful planning meeting that Marv had described in his 1987 book Productive Workplaces as one of a few methods he knew for “getting everybody improving whole systems.”

“Well,” said Marv, who had been experimenting for ten years, “I’m not sure it’s teachable. You have to learn by doing.”

Marv and Sandra, with whom he had run future searches since 1988, met with a group that included Marilyn, Carol Cohn, Ralph Copleman, Jean Haskell, Marti Kaplan, Ferne Kuhn, and Skip Lange. Together we planned an action research project. The consultants would donate their services to needy nonprofits. The two of us would mentor them for free. We would discover if people with minimal training could run successful future searches. We defined success as enabling systems to do things on Monday considered impossible the Friday before.

Soon sixteen consultants had recruited sixteen local nonprofits and twelve successful future searches were run. In no time people were calling from Washington, New York, Toronto, Ottawa, Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle asking if they too could learn and serve. In 1992 we set up Future Search Network with 120 founding members. Our pro bono training program soon led to more than 100 planning conferences in health care, education, community development, congregations, housing, sustainability, and the arts.

Word got around. Katherine Esty and Gil Steil took future search to Bangladesh, from whence Kim Martens carried it to Pakistan and Thailand and Sharad Sapra to Iran and the Sudan. Mike Bell took the process to the Inuit of the Arctic, Tony Richardson to the aboriginal peoples of Australia.

Soon we were raising money for the Network by training people on five continents. By 2004, more than 3000 people had learned the process, and 350 people from twenty countries belonged to Future Search Network. Anyone could join by signing a learning agreement (on the basic principles) and a service agreement (to do pro bono work and share learning with others). Alone we could do very little. Together we had a global change strategy that anyone could join. Moreover, we were a global community bound together by our commitment to serve society.

Today FSN manages future searches anywhere in the world for whatever people can afford. Members have helped improve water quality in Bangladesh, demobilize child soldiers in Sudan, control AIDS in Tanzania and South Africa, stimulate economic development in Northern Ireland, improve school district planning across North America, facilitate cross-cultural business mergers in South America, train women leaders in Siberia, promote interracial cooperation in many cities, revitalize religious congregations, and upgrade health care in communities everywhere. Tens of thousands have been involved. On a shoestring budget with a part-time staff, the network has become one of the most highly-leveraged social change agencies anywhere. The stone cast by a few local people in the Delaware Valley thirteen years ago now makes ripples around the world.


  • Join Future Search Network (set your own membership fee).
  • Join a worldwide neighborhood of committed others dedicated to a more open, equitable, and sustainable society.

Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff are co-directors of Future Search Network and co-authors of Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Communities and Organizations (Second edition, Berrett-Koehler, 2000). See Future Search at www.futuresearch.net for their workshops on managing future searches and on facilitating large, diverse groups.