AN ASSESSMENT OF SEARCH CONFERENCES: CITIZEN
PARTICIPATION AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT IN TURBULENT TIMES
Elaine Christine Granata
B.A., University of Maine, 1964
M.P.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 1977
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
x ~ ?
2005 by Elaine Christine Granata
All rights reserved
This thesis for the Doctor of Philosophy
Elaine Christine Granata
has been approved
Peter de Leon
2-0 Arpsyds ^cX7ST
Granata, Elaine, Christine (PhD, Public Affairs)
An Assessment of Search Conferences: Citizen Participation and Civic
Engagement in Turbulent Times
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Linda de Leon
In the past 40 years, search conferences have been used for strategic
planning, to involve citizens in community issues. No evaluation studies had been
conducted of their effectiveness at the inception of this dissertation. Three
questions are explored: Whether search and future search conferences are
effective, whether they contribute to civic engagement, and what conditions are
related to effectiveness. Ten cases were a part of the study along with findings
from nine other evaluation studies.
Of the eleven identified outcomes the ones that are generally predictable
are: 1. new networks among stakeholders are created, 2. conference sponsors
objectives are met if they involve visioning or strategic planning, 3. mutual
understanding and learning occur, and 4. common ground is the foundation for
viable action groups. Less predictable outcomes, or those that partially manifest
are that: 1. action groups are formed, but about 50 percent remain viable after the
conference, 2. diffusion of the desired future is only partially communicated to the
larger community, 3. active adaptation is generally ignored, and 4. energy levels are
generally high but vary depending on participants expectations. A study of
longer-term outcomes is needed to determine if the desired future created in search
conferences is realized, though findings from some of the other evaluation studies
indicate long-term changes toward the desired future are not realized.
No conclusions could be made concerning the two outcomes related to
participation in search conferences and civic engagement. However, the predictable
outcomes named above, especially networking and mutual understanding and
learning can be considered indicators that civic engagement is enhanced and social
capital is built.
All conditions for effectiveness stated in the literature, except one, the
environmental scan, were validated and include getting the right people in the
room, a focus on common ground, and a self-managed work environment. Follow-
up mechanisms and support are common and contribute to action group viability,
though this has not been a stated condition for effectiveness in the literature nor
was this factor a predictor of action group viability in all cases.
Questions are raised concerning the authenticity of search conferences as an
expression of direct democracy.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Linda de Leon
To my mother who had the foresight to save for college she had no idea Id go
To Ed who has been a constant source of support and encouragement.
Thanks to Linda de Leon for her patience with my struggle, her help and direction
in guiding a professional study, and her trust in me to get it done.
Thanks to Allan Wallis for his questions and insights that pushed the findings to a
deeper level; to Barbara Coe who helped hone the study question; to Peter de Leon
for helping me nudge the orthodoxy; to Theresa Szczuerk who kept me moving and
focused on getting done; to Rita Schweitz who worked earnestly to find me cases to
study; and to all the conference managers and sponsors who took time to interview
Thanks to my colleagues on the listservs who responded to my surveys; to Janis
Nowlan who helped me keep the study relevant; and to Merrelyn Emery for her
comments that helped make this a study of significance.
Mary Colasanti provided much-appreciated assistance with formatting and
beautification of the manuscript; Paula VanDusen met the challenge of putting the
dissertation into final form; Jamie Forsbergs expertise with statistical software
saved many hours of struggle.
And lastly to Ed for his support and his many readings of the text.
1. SEARCH CONFERENCES AND CIVIC COMMUNITY......................1
Definitions and Differences..............................2
What is a Search Conference?.......................2
Non-Search Large Group Methods...........................6
Importance of This Study.................................8
Problem Statement: Whither Civic Community?.............13
Overview of the Dissertation............................15
2. SEARCH CONFERENCES: ACTIVITIES, MODEL OF THE
STUDY AND THEORETICAL CONCEPTS AND PRINCIPLES.............16
Anatomy of a Search Conference: A Typical Event.........16
The Planning Group....................................18
Model of the Study..........................................28
Rationalization of Conflict...........................43
Small Group Dynamics..................................46
The Role of the Conference Manager....................48
3. A REVIEW OF THE RELEVANT LITERATURE............................ 50
Areas of Related Literature.................................50
Criticism of Searches.......................................51
Role of the Environment.............................. 56
Relationship of Thought and Knowledge to Action.......57
Citizen Involvement and Ownership.....................59
Ideal Seeking and Appreciative Inquiry................60
Criticisms of Collaboration
Characteristics of Successful Collaboration.........66
Citizen Participation and Direct Democracy.................80
History of Direct Democracy and Citizen Participation.80
Civic Engagement and Social Capital.................83
Role of the Public Manager.................................85
4. RESEARCH METHODOLOGY........................................ 109
Broad Framework................................... 109
Ideal Macro Design................................ 117
Actual Macro Design................................121
Micro Designs (Ideal and Actual).................. 121
Validity and Reliability................................. 126
History Ideal Design.............................126
History Actual Design............................126
Maturation Ideal Design..........................127
Maturation -- Actual Design...................... 127
Selection Ideal Design......................... 128
Selection Actual Design.........................128
Testing Ideal Design............................129
Testing Actual Design...........................130
Mortality Ideal Design..........................130
Mortality Actual Design.........................130
Data Collection -Ideal Design.....................132
Data Collection Actual Design...................133
5. DESCRIPTION OF THE CASES................................... 139
Case Descriptions....................................... 139
Ten Areas Affecting Comparability................ 139
6. META-ANALYASIS OF NINE STUDIES
OF SEARCH CONFERENCES.......................................155
Findings from the Nine Other Evaluation Studies......... 157
McMaster University.............................. 157
Oel s Di ssertation.............................. 162
Pelletier and McCullum Studies
Schusler, Decker and Pfeffer Studies............... 174
Martin Dissertation................................ 177
Polanyi Dissertation............................... 181
Summary of the Nine Studies........................ 183
Comparison of the Nine Studies to Model of the Study... 190
7. FINDINGS...................................................... 208
Findings from the Sample Cases and Comparison
with the Nine Other Studies............................... 210
Analysis of Interview Data and Comparison to Factors
in Model of the Study...............................210
Comparison Between Sample Cases
and the Nine Studies.......................................289
Unanticipated Findings from the Sample Cases........292
The Revised Model...................................293
Are Searches Effective?.............................295
What Relationship Do Searches Have
to Building Civic Community?........................298
What are the Conditions that Contribute
to the Effectiveness of Searches?...................299
8. CONCLUSIONS................................................... 306
Conclusions about the Research Questions...................307
Key Issues Challenging Theory and Practice...........307
Crombies Criticisms................................ 314
A Typology of Searches.....................................319
Implications for Practitioners, Sponsors and Public Managers.... 326
Areas for Consideration from the Literature..........326
What Practitioners Could be Doing Differently........327
What Sponsors Could be Doing Differently.............331
What Public Sector Managers Need to Know.............331
Areas for Future Research..................................333
Conclusion: Civic Engagement in Turbulent Times............338
A. RAW DATA OF OUTCOMES SURVEY OF
B. INTERVIEW QUESTIONS/SCRIPT FOR CONFERENCE
C. INTERVIEW QUESTIONS/SCRIPT FOR CONFERENCE
D. WRITTEN QUESTIONNAIRES FOR IDEAL
E. COVER LETTER FOR PARTICIPATING MANAGERS AND
F. CONSENT FORM FOR PARTICIPATING MANAGERS AND
G. DESCRIPTIVE STATISTICS......................397
H. BEHAVIORAL ANCHORS FOR RATINGS OF FACTORS
1.1 Search Conference Funnel......................................... 3
2.1 Model of the Study.............................................. 29
2.2 The Extended Social Field....................................... 36
5.1 Resource and Support Continuum of Community or Issue Searches.. 143
6.1 Model of the Study (Repeat of Figure 2.1)...................... 156
7.1 Model of the Study (Repeat of Figure 2.1)...................... 209
7.2 Revised Model of the Study..................................... 294
8.1 Search Conference Outcomes with Predictor Variables............ 315
1.1 Future Search Conference Five Tasks...................................5
2.1 Detailed Explanation of Factors in Model of the Study................31
2.2 Survey of Outcomes for Search Conferences and Future Search
3.1 Major Authors Concepts that Correspond to Factors in the Model......88
3.2 Key Concepts of Major Authors and their Relationship to the Model....90
4.1 Mean Ratings of Outcomes Survey of Practitioners....................112
4.2 Differences Between Community/Issue and Organization Searches.....115
4.3 Study Components....................................................118
4.4 Macro Case Study Design.............................................120
5.1 Cases in This Study.................................................140
6.1 Evaluation Studies of Search (SC) and Future Search (FS) Conferences.... 158
6.2 Comparison of Figure 6.1 Factors and Oels Criteria.................165
6.3 Similarities Among the Nine Studies.................................184
6.4 Differences Among the Nine Studies..................................189
6.5 Ratings and Linkage of the Nine Studies to the Model of the Study -
6.6 Ratings and Linkage of the Nine Studies to the Model of the Study -
Intervention Factors.............................................. 195
6.7 Ratings and Linkage of the Nine Studies to the Model of the Study -
Outcome Factors................................................... 198
6.8 Summary of Effectiveness Ratings for the Nine Cases.................204
7.1 Overall Effectiveness Ratings by Sponsors and Managers..............211
7.2 Revised Context Factor for Sponsorship............................. 217
7.3 Context Factors Sponsorship.......................................217
7.4 Sponsor Rationale for Choosing a Search.............................219
7.5 Manager and Sponsor Ratings of Context Factors......................222
7.6 Context Factors Issues............................................226
7.7 Context Factors Community.........................................232
7.8 Ratings and Linkage of the Ten Cases to the Model of the Study -
7.9 Intervention F actors...............................................241
7.10 Getting the Correct People to Attend..............................242
7.11 Ratings and Linkage of the Ten Cases to the Model of the Study -
7.12 Outcome Factors....................................................252
7.13 Open-Ended Responses about Conference Outcomes.................... 253
7.14 Ratings of Outcome Factors of Figure 7.1, Model of the Study.......257
7.15 Status of Action Group Work....................................... 259
7.16 Sponsor Rating for New Norms......................................272
7.17 Ratings and Linkage of the Ten Cases to the Model of the Study -
7.18 Summary of Effectiveness Ratings for the Ten Studied Cases........ 284
7.19 Comparison of Search Effectiveness to Other Processes............. 289
7.20 Combined Summary Ratings of the Nine Evaluation Studies
and the Ten Cases...................................................290
7.21 Summary of Results Compared to the Nine Evaluation Studies........291
7.22 Rating Code for Revised Model of the Study.........................295
8.1 Crombies Typology of Searches......................................320
8.2 A Revised Typology of Searches......................................322
SEARCH CONFERENCES AND CIVIC COMMUNITY
Think about it. Noble vision and high ideals have spurred the birth of
organizations, educational and religious institutions, progressive social
movements, flourishing communities, creative epochs, even new
civilizations. Visions and ideals bring out the best in people. People
Power. Collaborative social action. ...we see it in the solidarity of
people united by a common cause. There is an unquestionable energy
unleashed when people work collectively to bring their most desirable
future into existence.
Merrelyn Emery. (1996). The search conference.
This first chapter introduces search conferences and then discusses the
context for this evaluation study, distinguishing search conferences from other
large-group, strategic-planning interventions. The relationship to civic engagement
Definitions and Differences
What is a Search Conference?
This dissertation explores the effectiveness of search conferences, which is a
collaborative, participative strategic planning method that gets its energy for
action by working on common ground, which differs from consensus. It assumes
people are purposeful and emphasizes the relationship to the extended social field
(the environment) and a democratic work structure. It engages citizens to change
their community. The process of the search conference (displayed in Figure 1.1)
has been called the funnel by Merrelyn Emery, who has assumed the task of
diffusing the concept of, and training people in using, search conference methods
and theory. The funnel activities take between twenty to forty-five participants
approximately two to two-and-a-half days (eighteen to twenty hours) to complete.
The outcome is agreement on a number of strategic goals and formation of action
planning groups committed to bring each goal into being.
Since the first search conference in 1959 in England, facilitated by its
inventors, Eric Trist and Fred Emery, this method has been growing in popularity
around the world and in the United States. It has spawned a spin-off in the form of
future search conferences, and both are classified under the recently coined term
"large group interventions" (Bunker and Alban, 1997).
Figure 1.1 Search Conference Funnel
The typical Search Conference resembles an hourglass, but is frequently referred to as a
funnel in the literature. It begins with the broad perspective and narrows to specific action
plans followed by diffusion to the broader community.
Recent trends, events and forces in the world
Most probable and desirable world future
Trends impacting the search question
History of the search question
Current state: what to
keep, drop, create
End of the Search Conference Event*
Recruiting other community members
Designing implementation activities for action plans
Periodic community evaluation of progress toward goals
*In the latest innovation, the end of the conference is preceded by a modified Participative Design
Workshop (PDW) to create a democratic, design principle 2, structure to implement action plans.
Source: Adapted from Emery, M. (1993), p. 239.
Future search conferences, parented by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff,
are similar to search conferences. They share much of the same theory base (e. g.,
open systems, Asch's conditions for effective dialogue (experiencing that we all
live on the same planet and are psychologically the same) and participative
democracy), have virtually identical outcomes (a strategic plan created by a large
group of stakeholders and a "planning community), and share similar processes
such as an environmental scan, a reflection on the history of the search topic,
common ground, and self-management of work groups. Table 1.1 displays the
"five tasks" (a shorthand expression comparable to the search conference's funnel).
Although Weisbord and Janoff consider search and future search to be
substantively and theoretically similar, Emery (1994) disagrees. Oels (2003)
identifies differences at the activity level and has data that both support and refute
some of the differences that Emery has identified. These differences will be
explored in greater detail in Chapters 5 and 7 containing the case descriptions and
the findings. The next section of this chapter also describes some of the
Because both Emery and Weisbord/Janoff purport the same outcomes from
search and future search, (and admit to different approaches to these outcomes),
this thesis argues that, for its purposes, they are more similar to each other than any
other collaborative planning method is to them, and therefore they warrant being
treated as the same process.
Table 1.1: Future Search Conference Five Tasks
1. Review the Past
This is a review at three levels the past of the conference participants, of the
conference topic, and of key world events, often done by decades.
2. Explore the Present
This is an environmental scan of the events and forces currently impacting the
search topic using a mind map.
3. Create Ideal Future Scenarios
In small groups people create their desired future for the search topic and
present them in skits or other creative ways.
4. Identify Common Ground The Reality Dialogue
The content of the skits is analyzed to find convergence around key ideas and
concepts for the future.
5. Make Action Plans
Participants are asked to identify actions they can take to bring into being the
key ideas and concepts, either individually or in an action group.
Source: Adapted from Weisbord, M. and Janoff, S. (1995), p.5.
Non-Search Large Group Methods
There are two other large group interventions related to strategic planning
that Bunker and Alban (1997) identify Real Time Strategic Change (RTSC) and
the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) planning model. RTSC (Dannemiller and
Jacobs, 1992) can involve meetings with hundreds, and most recently thousands, of
people who consider a proposed future direction for the enterprise. The ICA uses
steps similar to those of a search conference and has used their model widely to do
community development in the third world, and now in the U.S. (Spencer, 1989).
These latter two methods differ in important and substantial ways from search
Though some of the theory behind RTSC is similar and/or congruent with that
of search conferences (Dannemiller and Jacobs, 1992), there are some theory bases
and many of the practices that are unlike search. A basic difference is the use of a
design team that uses the traditional organization development model of action
research. The team gathers data throughout the organization, makes a diagnosis,
determines the meeting outcomes and designs the meeting activities. The search
conference-planning group does not use the action research model. Instead, it is
constituted as a microcosm of the system and proceeds on its own authority to
determine the conference topic and select the participants. Further, in RTSC, it is
not unusual to have a straw horse desired future/vision statement that has been
developed by management for presentation at the meeting. Thus, this mode of
decision-making is consultative to a higher authority, based upon this straw horse
proposal, whereas at a search conference, the search community is both the creator
and final authority on the statement of the desired future/vision.
In general, the RTSC model begins from a different base (action research) and
each event varies based upon the data collected by the design team. It does not fit
this dissertation because measures of effectiveness different from those used for
search conferences would have to be used to determine the effectiveness of RTSC.
In the ICA approach, there are four fixed "workshops" that cover many of the
same areas as search conferences environmental scan, analysis of constraints,
creating a desired future, and action planning (Spencer, 1989). In practice, the
workshops are facilitated, not managed, as is a search conference. Self-
regulation or self-management around a task is an integral element in search
conferences that are based upon the democratic design principle, a foundation of
the Emerys' work. It is a democratic workspace that the Emerys claim delivers the
goods from a search conference, a planning community that can continue its
work in adapting to its environment and its demands. Because the ICA model is
not based on a self-management structure to get the work done, it separates itself
enough from search methodology that it cannot be included as a part of this thesis.
Also the ICA model uses the practice of reflection by allowing participants to
experience the experience (Holman and Devane, 1999, p. 70). This reflection
activity runs counter to the task orientation of searches and the ABX relationship
that is foundational to searches (see Chapter 2 for details).
For the sake of simplicity throughout the rest of this dissertation, we use the
term "search" to refer to both search conferences and to future search conferences
unless a distinction needs to be made.
Importance of This Study
Practitioners of search tout their effectiveness and almost magical" qualities.
Many issues of SearchNews, a publication of SearchNet, the future search network,
illustrate this fascination and the growth of the methodology. SearchNet has four
hundred fifty members, and has trained sixteen hundred people in the U.S.,
Canada, England, India and Singapore; there are over three hundred future searches
in the database (Weisbord, 1997). These statistics do not include information from
the counterpart organization for search conferences, PD Americas, which is much
less well organized but has comparable figures. And all of this does not account
for practitioners who are not members of either SearchNet or PD Americas but
who are using these methodologies. Only one reference was found that identifies
and discusses the criticisms of searches (Crombie, 1985).
There is almost no research, however, to support the claims being made by its
advocates and/or practitioners. Much of the literature dealing directly with either
search or future search (Williams, 1979; Weisbord, 1991; Weisbord, 1992;
Weisbord and Janoff, 1995; Emery, 1993; Emery, 1994; Emery and Purser, 1996;
Emery, 1997; Holman and Devane, 1999; Emery, 1999) is descriptive of the
method and its theory base. What little evaluation is included in these publications
is primarily anecdotal and illustrative. Not included in this list of references are
several published articles and reports of both search and future search conferences,
most of which are essentially proceedings (e.g., http://sp.library.utronto.ca/cgi-
bin/webspirs.ca). These publications cover such areas as leisure, wildfire
management, dietetics, traffic safety, labor-management relations, and a railroad
Current research in progress and completed dissertations were sought to
assess the status of existing evaluation studies of search conferences. An
examination of dissertation abstracts located five other completed doctoral
dissertations that reference search or future search conferences. They are of
questionable relevance to this study: one focused on the basic social processes
(BSP) that occur in a future search conference (Stewart, 1995); another was a case
study of a future search conference to examine the evolution of management and
test the application of systems design in action research (Pagano, 1993); yet
another used a "significantly modified" search conference to elaborate on corporate
environmental scanning (Klaff, 1980); Campbells study (1988) was enhanced
by introducing elements of Jungian psychodynamics and studied the effect of this
enhancement on the search conference. The one remaining study, an Australian
dissertation (Elliott, 1985), examined the contrast between traditional futures
paradigms and open systems planning, of which the search conference is an
example. The major finding was that futures research fails to recognize the ability
of organizations to behave purposefully in choosing their desired futures. This is a
validation of one of the theoretical underpinnings of search conferences but not of
their effectiveness. Thus, none address the overall effectiveness of the search
conference as an intervention.
There are four known doctoral dissertations in progress or recently completed
that do address the question of the effectiveness of search conferences, one in
Toronto, another in Australia, one in the United States and one in the UK. A meta-
analysis of the completed dissertations is made in Chapter 6, and comparisons
made to the findings from this thesis. The Toronto dissertation (Michael Polanyi)
is an evaluation of a single case, a future search on repetitive strain injuries
(Polanyi, 1999). His assessment of the conference (Polanyi, 1999, 2001) identified
outcomes and the extent to which the conference delivered those outcomes. He
found that the future search methodology delivered some, but not all, of the
outcomes. The Australian study (John Paton) is in progress and is designed to
validate the theoretical foundations of search conferences (personal
communication, March 10, 2004). The US study (Martin, 2000) concerns the
degree to which differences and conflict are genuinely dealt with, an issue with
which both practitioners and critics are concerned. Oels UK study (2002), based
on her doctoral dissertation, is an extensive analysis of two future search
conferences in Europe on the same topic. Her criteria for measuring effectiveness
are similar to the ones used in this dissertation.
In addition to these dissertations, other studies were found that were also
included in the meta-analysis. Cornell University faculty and students (Pelletier et
al., 1999a; Pelletier et al., 1999b; McCullum et al., 2003; Schusler and Decker,
2003) have published four studies that evaluate search conferences. It is noted that
the search conference design they studied is neither the search conference funnel
nor the future search five tasks and is referred to here as the Cornell design. These
differences are dealt with in Chapter 5, where the cases in this study are described.
A future search conference completed in 2002 at McMaster University, Toronto
(Functional Assessment, 2002) was sponsored by the University and included an
evaluation component, not only of the subject matter, functional assessment, but
also of the methodology, future search conference. The study has both short and
long term assessments. These findings are discussed in greater detail in Chapter 6.
(Periodic review of the Internet will no doubt reveal even more studies in
When this dissertation was conceptualized in 1998, none of the above cited
studies had been completed; in fact, they too were in the conceptualization process.
This thesis at the time would have filled a void in assessment of the search
conference methodology. At present, it contributes to the growing body of
evaluation literature. It is dissimilar from any of the others in that it is a multiple
case study and includes two variations of the basic design: future search
conference and the Cornell model of search conference, described in greater detail
in Chapters 5 and 6.
Because this author is a practitioner of search, there are risks that a favorable
bias toward searches is introduced. However, it is because of the author's
experience that she brings both skepticism and genuine curiosity about the
effectiveness of searches. After promoting them to clients for these past ten years,
she wonders if they really do work as well as their proponents claim. She is
concerned that they are being cannibalized, i.e., that only parts of the process are
being used and called a search. Such adaptation may compromise the integrity,
thus the effectiveness, of searches.
One possible method to counteract this potential bias is to use other experts to
review data, conduct interviews, review definitions, etc. The major challenge in
doing this is that most of the practitioners are convinced that searches work and
have a strong bias toward them. One of the practitioners trained in this process
who is nevertheless another skeptic is Barbara Coe, who is a member of this
Problem Statement: Whither Civic Community?
The erosion of democracy and civic community in America has been
documented by, among others, Robert Putnam (1995, 2000). On the other hand,
Harwood (1991) presents a different face, one not of citizen apathy, but of citizen
frustration and anger at being left out of the political decision making process.
This anger, Harwood claims, has led to citizen requests to work together with
government on common problems, reflecting a move toward more direct
democracy, consensual instead of majoritarian decision making, and dialogue
instead of debate (Chrislip and Larson, 1994).
Thus the problem facing public sector managers and elected officials is to
find ways to stop the erosion of civic community, if Putnam is right, or create fora
for more meaningful citizen involvement, if Harwood is right.
Search conferences are an expression of direct democracy and civic
community. They ask the people who have a stake in an issue to meet, collaborate
on a future plan, then carry out actions to achieve that plan. This expresses the
"democratic design principle," one of the theoretical underpinnings of searches,
explained in detail in Chapter 2. Could such a relatively simple technique be so
powerful that it can help restore civic community? Can civic community be built
or rebuilt as the result of a two-and-a-half day event known as a search conference?
The revitalization of direct democracy and citizenship is an exciting prospect
to many researchers. Direct democracy appears to have existed in America for
about forty years after the first settlers landed in the northern colonies (Kweit and
Kweit, 1981). It was a grand experiment in governance. In contemporary
America, we often speak of our democracy as if it were still like the one our
founders fashioned in the Mayflower Compact, though of course it is not. The
Constitutional Convention violated many of the principles upon which the first
settlers relied (Kweit and Kweit, 1981). The search conference is an attempt to go
back to that early experience of direct democracy. The results of this dissertation
will lay a foundation for later research that could assess the potential of this method
to restore direct democracy and civic community, a much grander research project
than this one.
This dissertation answers three basic questions:
Question 1: Are search conferences effective? That is, do they achieve the
results they purport?
Question 2: What relationship do searches have to civic community?
Question 3: What are the conditions that make for effective searches?
In summary, recent studies have begun to address the question of the
effectiveness of searches. This thesis will add to that body of literature. The
erosion of civic engagement is of concern to many researchers, practitioners and
public sector managers and leaders. They are interested to know if collaborative
and deliberative processes such as searches create or enhance civic engagement,
another question this thesis discusses. Search theory is filled with prescriptions for
effective searches. This thesis will examine the prescriptions to determine their
validity. The following chapter presents an organizing model based on the three
Overview of the Dissertation
The next chapter describes search conferences in detail, the theory base that
underpins them and introduces the model for this thesis. Chapter 3 reviews the
literature in areas related to searches: strategic planning, collaboration, planned
change, civic engagement and the role of the public manager. Chapter 4 discusses
the research methodology. Chapter 5 contains a description of the cases in the
sample. Chapter 6 contains the meta-analysis of the nine studies of searches,
Chapter 7 discusses the findings of the research, followed by the final chapter that
draws conclusions and implications for search practitioners and public-sector and
non-profit sector managers.
SEARCH CONFERENCES: ACTIVITIES,
MODEL OF THE STUDY, AND
THEORETICAL CONCEPTS AND PRINCIPLES
Problem solving and creating are completely different. When you are
problem solving, the actions you take are designed to have something go
away.. ,[W]hen you are creating, the actions you take are designed to have
something come into being...
Robert Fritz. (1989). Technologies for creating: The basic course.
This chapter covers three areas: a detailed description of search conferences,
the model of this study, and the theoretical foundations of searches. Each is dealt
with in turn below.
Anatomy of a Search Conference: A Typical Event
There are three components of a search event: 1) the sponsor, 2) the planning
group, and 3) the conference itself which has the following five segments:
Environmental understanding and analysis
System, or organization, understanding and analysis
Integration of the system, or organization, with the environment
Completion of the active adaptation process
Diffusion (post conference)
First, the three components are described, followed by the five segments.
A search conference begins with a meeting with a potential sponsor to
educate and explain the appropriate use of a search. If the sponsor wants to
convene people to figure out how to implement a plan or project, a search is not
appropriate. The search is designed to be used to develop the what, not the how. It
is a visioning and strategic planning process, not an implementation process. For
example, a colleague was asked by a government agency to help it plan a search to
get input on how to implement a new program it had created to respond to minority
employees. Since this was about implementation and not creation, the search
consultant redirected the effort toward a different process more appropriate for
gaining input and designing implementation activities.
Once the appropriateness of its use is determined, one other key feature is
discussed with the sponsor the self-authorized or empowered nature of the
search. This means that the sponsor will not have sole control of the outcome,
which, instead, is vested in the assembled group of conference participants. The
search is not consultative or advisory or for input to the sponsor for his or her
decision-making. The participants become a planning community who collectively
own and have authority over the outcomes and subsequent action planning. If this
feature is not clearly understood and endorsed by the sponsor, the consultant
should not proceed, but, instead, suggest another process.
The Planning Group
The planning group is meant to be a microcosm of the stakeholders who have
an interest in the search topic. That they are a microcosm is important to the full
effectiveness of the conference. For example, one community search in a small
town in Colorado had a Hispanic community of some size. The planning group
struggled to get a Hispanic on the planning group and finally did after several
meetings of the group, but too late to make a difference. This person was brought
in near the end of the planning groups work and was unable to identify and invite
Hispanics from the community to participate in the conference. The search had one
Hispanic out of fifty-five people at the conference. During the review of the
history of the community, people expressed regret that the Hispanics were not
there. The subsequent action groups dealt with community issues, but these may
not have been the full picture as the Hispanic perspective was not in the room.
The planning group is responsible for getting educated about the search
process so that they understand it well enough to invite people and brief them about
what will take place at the conference. It decides on the exact search topic because
clarity of the topic determines whom to invite and what the search processes will
focus upon. For example, a search with a council of Colorado governments about
water specifically focused on water quality, not quantity, the latter being an entirely
different and even hotter issue than water quality. The focus on water quality
prescribed the specific details of the various tasks the environmental scan, the
history and the desired future all examined water quality, and excluded water
After the topic is clearly defined, the planning group creates a social map,
which is an array of the stakeholder groups that have an interest and influence on
the topic. The pure process then calls for the planning group to use the
community reference system to identify the exact people who should be invited.
The community reference system works by having each planning group member
poll people in each stakeholder group, explain the search topic and ask the person
to name someone whom they believe would be interested and influential, a good
participant for the topic. The planning group member then asks the named person
the same question and keeps going to the next named person until the same name
starts surfacing. That frequently named person is then identified as the person who
should be invited. In practice, this researcher has found that planning groups
generally do not use the full community reference system. Instead, its members
brainstorm among themselves to identify the best participants. These people
are then invited and briefed about the nature of the search process. (It is noted that
future search methodology does not call for the use of the community reference
The planning group decides if there is any background material it wants
participants to have. Because there are no lectures or presentations at searches, any
lecture material is sent out ahead of time. For example, for a search on the future
of diversity within a large corporation, the planning group decided it wanted all
participants to have the corporations diversity policy, and some statistics of the
current diversity profile. These were provided as pre-search reading material.
Lastly, the planning group takes care of logistics finding a suitable room,
arranging for food and/or lodging, sending last minute reminders to participants.
The conference itself is an eighteen to twenty hour event, preferably working
into the evening in order to immerse people in the topic and provide informal
opportunities over meals to relate and build relationships. A typical conference
begins in the mid-afternoon of day one, breaks for a meal and continues into the
evening. It continues the entire next day and evening and concludes on the third
day at about noon. Fred Emery (personal communication, May 17, 1993) says the
reason for this is the zeigamick effect the creation of uncompleted task tension
that keeps people in a creative working mode.
Work is done both in plenary and in small groups of six to eight people,
composed of a maximum mix of stakeholders. Small group work is reported back
to the entire search community to keep the community as the locus of
responsibility and facilitate the identification of common ground.
Segment One: Environmental Understanding and Analysis. Each of the five
segments has tasks associated with it (Holman and Devane, 1999, p. 30).
Following the funnel in Figure 1.1, the first task after introductions, expectations
and an overview of the conference activities is a scan and analysis of the larger
global environment, the L2,2 (see Open Systems discussion in this chapter for
greater detail). This scan is not related to the conference topic, but rather is a scan
of the trends, events and forces that form the context within which the organization
exists. (In a future search this scan is done during the review of the past by
decades). After a brainstorm of the trends, events and forces, about half of the
small groups of six to eight participants are asked to analyze the scan and develop a
most probable future of the world. The other half is asked to develop a most
desired future of the world. Each group presents its work to the others and
common ground for both the probable and desirable are identified and agreed upon.
Issues on which the participants do not share common ground are posted on a
disagree list. The purpose is to create a commonly shared objective field that
results in the recognition of a shared psychological field among the participants. It
also creates a context within which planning for the search topic occurs. For
example, in one conference with a government agency, there was no agreement
that eliminating disease was a part of the desired future of the world, so it was
posted on a disagree list. The rationalization of conflict discussion that got to
this disagreement helped the group solidify its common ground while respecting
the opinions of those who differed. As the discussion unfurled, these
environmental scientists agreed that disease was a part of the natural system and is
healthy. It was because of those who disagreed with the initial statement of
eliminating disease that the group was able to find common ground around
eliminating epidemics, instead of eliminating disease.
The next task in this segment may be a similar analysis of the task
environment the environment that is directly related to the search topic. (In
future search this is done using a mind map.) For example, if the search were
about low-income housing, the task environment scan would focus on the trends,
events and forces impacting housing. The analysis portion would ask all small
groups to sketch out the probable future of housing if these trends, events and
forces continue without any intervention on their part as a planning community.
Again common ground is sought and disagree items are posted. This probable
future scenario is used during the second segment (analysis of the system) to
determine if there is a gap between the desired future for the system and the likely
future if no interventions occur.
Segment Two: System Understanding and Analysis. The next set of tasks
begins the second segment -- the understanding of the system. It begins with an
analysis of the history of the system or topic, say, low-income housing. The
history activity is done in a number of different ways. One typical method is to ask
people to reflect on their history and write significnt events on a timeline drawn on
a chart and posted on a wall. After the events are posted, the group examines its
timeline in order to identify learnings and things that people want to keep or
change. Often this is followed by an activity called keep-drop-create in which
the assembled people are asked to brainstorm the aspects of the system or topic that
they want to keep, those they want to drop and those they want to create. This
serves the purpose of priming the pump for the last task in this segment
creation of the most desired future for the system or topic.
In formulating the most desired future, each small group is given ample time
to use the analysis of the environmental scans, the review of the history and keep-
drop-create to design a future for the system around the search topic. Each group
presents its desired future as present tense statements that include an identifiable
outcome. The role of the conference manager is to monitor this task to assure that
outcome statements are framed by the work groups so that there are actionable
items for the next tasks. For example, a statement that says there will plenty of
affordable housing in the community is less useful for action planning than one that
says that by a certain date there will X percent increase in affordable housing
located near public transportation.
Once all the desired future statements are reported out, common ground is
found, and any disagree items are posted. The conference manager designs a
method for setting priorities that helps the group get this list of future statements
down to a manageable number, say four to five major areas, or whatever number of
areas the group feels it can manage. Once these final future goal statements are
identified they are reviewed by the participants:
For congruency with the desired future of the world, created during the first
For adequacy in addressing the probable future of the system, created
during the task environmental scan, and
To determine if there is a gap between what they desire for the system or
organization and the probable future they created earlier.
An example of checking for congruency occurred in a search with a large
chemical company. The comparison of the desired future for its system with the
desired future of the world revealed that they were not congruent they had
created a desired future of the system accomplishment of certain goals, which, if
done would run counter to the desired future of the world they had all agreed
upon. (The exact details are proprietary, but an example would be that participants
may have wanted to develop a new chemical or process that turns out to be highly
polluting or dangerous to humans. This would have run counter to a desired future
for the world that included a less polluted environment that was less dangerous for
people). They had to go back to the drawing board to revise their desired future of
the system as congruent with the desired future of the world they had all agreed
upon during the environmental scan.
The adequacy and effectiveness of the desired future is tested against the
issues raised in the probable future. If the desired future of the system does not
address the weaknesses of the probable future of the system, then it is not a very
effective desired future it will not make a difference. For example, in one search
about the future of the search conference methodology, the probable future was that
practitioners would work independently, each doing its own work without
coordination with others, thus diminishing the synergistic effect of coordination in
spreading the use of the search methodology. The desired future contained goal
statements that would counteract this tendency to work solo and without
coordination. Hence, the desired future was deemed to be effective.
The gap between the desired and probable future addresses the tension needed
to sustain the action groups. If the difference between the most probable future and
the most desirable future is not very great, there is not much incentive created to
energize action groups, there is no stretch, or structural tension in the words of
Robert Fritz (1989).
Segment Three: Integration of the System and the Environment. The third
segment, integration of the environment and the system, begins with an analysis of
the constraints to the most desired future just agreed upon for the major goal areas.
People vote with their feet in this activity by going to the goal area that interests
them and these become the action planning groups responsible for carrying out that
goal statement of the desired future. The action planning groups are asked to
identify constraints and strategies to overcome those constraints. These are
reported out in plenary for feedback, then the groups return to their work to develop
further action plans to carry out their goal and decide if they are missing expertise
or a needed perspective. If so, the action group is encouraged to invite people not
at the conference to join them. It is at this stage that achievability of the desired
future statements are assessed. If, after analyzing the constraints, the action groups
determine that their statement is not achievable, they modify it to one that is, report
it to the whole community and ask if the new statement represents common ground.
Segment Four: Completion of the Active Adaptation Process. This final task
of the assembled group has been changed recently by Merelyn Emery with the
creation of the two-stage model (Holman and Devane, 1999, p. 38). Most of the
searches that are available for this thesis are one-stage conferences during which
the final task has been one of deciding next steps for the assembled group. In
plenary, there is a discussion of how to diffuse their plans, when to meet again, and
how to coordinate. It is not unusual for the entire group to agree to meet again in
ninety days for reports from the action groups. The sponsor often takes a role in
coordination. For some searches, the sponsor does not and/or cannot take on this
role due to resource constraints. For example, in the water quality search
referenced above, the assembled group agreed to assess themselves a small fee so
that they could pay a facilitator for future meetings, pay for meeting space and
meals, etc. This is the ideal, according to Merrelyn Emery (personal
communication, May 20, 1998). This is a sign that the community has empowered
itself and moved into functioning in a design principle 2, democratic structure,
(see below for more discussion of the design principles).
In the two-stage model, a modified Participative Design Workshop (PDW)
(Emery, 1993, pp. 100-122) is conducted immediately following the search. The
PDW is a way to help participants structure themselves in a democratically
organized, or design principle 2 structure. Generally, the PDW has tasks that guide
action group members in the creation of a structure and process in order to function
as a self-managing, multi-skilled team.
Segment Five: Diffusion. Any post-conference activities that serve to diffuse
the goals and plans of the search are part of the diffusion process. For example, in
the water quality search in Colorado, the conference created a Water Quality Forum
that met quarterly and to which conference members invited other parties who
might be interested and useful in carrying out their plans. This segment is as much
an outcome as a set of activities. Search managers encourage discussion of
diffusion during segment four, but how well it occurs is a measure of the
effectiveness of the conference.
Future search has different activities to accomplish these segments. (See
Table 1.1 for the five tasks). They are done in a different order and common
ground is not sought until the future scenarios Reality Dialogue, a major difference
between these two search methods. The outcomes are the same, action-planning
groups that are committed to carry out their portion of the desired future agreed
upon at the conference.
Model of the Study
Figure 2.1 shows the organizing model for this study and Table 2.1 contains
detailed explanations of the propositions for each factor in the three columns keyed
to the model.
The model is based upon the three questions this dissertation addresses:
Question 1: Are search conferences effective? That is, do they achieve the
results they purport? the first ten items identified as Outcomes for the
model in Figure 2.1.
Question 2: What relationship do searches have to civic community? the
11th Outcome for the model in Figure 2.1.
Figure 2.1: Model of the Study
Context (Proposition3) Outcomes (Proposition 1)
1. Sponsors objectives are met
2. Viable jointly formulated action
3. Active Adaptation occurs
4. High affect & energy levels created &
5. Desired future is being realized
6. Diffusion throughout the community
7. Common ground is the impetus for
8. Direct democracy leads to
Community Characteristics empowerment
1. Individual involvement 9. New networks are created that
2. Organization & group involvement facilitate action planning
3. Density of networks
4. Fora for dialogue 10. Dialogue occurs & results in mutual
Meta Outcome (Proposition 2)
11. Civic engagement & involvement
10 1. Salience
1. Rationale for choosing a search
2. Perceived neutrality
4. Collaboration beliefs
Intervention (Proposition 31
Future search conferences
A. Getting the correct people to
B. A review by the search com-
munity of the larger environment
C. Agreement to work only on
issues for which there is common
D. A work environment struc-
tured on the democratic design
E. Some form of follow up
mechanism that provides
resources for action
^F. Some activity (like a PDW)
that helps action groups organize
themselves to operate according
to the democratic design principle
Question 3: What are the conditions that make for effective searches? the
factors listed in the Context and Intervention columns in the model in
In Figure 2.1, the Context column identifies the major factors operating as a
backdrop to searches that are based on this researchers experience and working
hypotheses. This thesis will determine the extent to which these factors affect the
eleven outcomes and identify the dynamics that operate by determining if and how
much these factors contribute to the outcomes. At this point, it is assumed that all
factors have an equal effect on the outcomes until proven otherwise by the data
collected here. (The single arrowhead symbolizes this equal effect).
The Intervention column identifies factors the literature presents as predictors
or conditions of effectiveness. This dissertation will assess the extent to which
they are predictors or conditions for an effective search.
The Outcomes column identifies purported results. The eleven outcomes in
the model were identified by asking a number of search and future search
practitioners to validate the outcomes by completing the survey shown in Table 2.2.
The results from this validation survey are contained in Appendix A. The
following discussion of the theoretical and conceptual foundations for searches
explains the model in Figure 2.1
Table 2.1: Detailed Explanation of Factors in Model of the Study
Proposition 1: Search conferences are effective, they do what they purport. The outcomes of
searches are as follows:
1. Sponsors objectives are achieved. The person or entity that initiated the search did so in
order to accomplish certain ends, and these ends are met.
2. Viable jointly formulated action groups. Groups of people form around action plans that
are jointly formulated and lead to the agreed-upon desired future of the system. These
groups are viable in that they continue to work effectively after the search until their goals
are achieved. The key to this outcome is that the action groups are formed and act on
behalf of the larger search community.
3. Active adaptation occurs. The planning community formed in the search actively adapts
to its environment. As strategies are developed to carry our action plans, the members of
the action planning groups continually scan the systems environment for changes and
adjust their strategies accordingly.
4. High affect and energy levels created and continue. Affect and energy about the search
topic is created and remains high throughout implementation until the action plan is carried
5. Desired future is being realized. The desired future, which is created, is, in fact, being
realized as a result of the action plans formulated to create that future.
6. Diffusion throughout the community. The degree to which the desired future created at
the conference is diffused throughout the larger community.
7. Common ground is impetus for change. The discovery of common ground permits
people to work effectively on such tasks as the formulation and planning of a desired future
that will change the system in the direction of the desired future.
8. Direct democracy leads to empowerment. The experience of working in a design
principle 2 structure (direct democracy) leaves people feeling and acting empowered and
9. New networks are created that facilitate action. New relationships and networks are
created that facilitate the accomplishment of action plans and reaching the desired future.
10. Dialogue takes place. Participation in the activities of the search results in genuine mutual
understanding of others perspectives, which, in turn, increases the discovery of common
ground and the willingness to work collaboratively to manifest a desired future.
Proposition 2: That participating in a search conference contributes to individual civic engagement
Civic engagement and involvement increase. Participants report both a behavior change (more
involvement in civic groups and meetings) and an attitudinal change (feeling that they are
empowered and can make a difference in civic life). The experience of direct democracy, the
formation of new networks or the enrichment of existing networks, and the sense of efficacy that
comes from working in a collaborative mode increase peoples sense of civic responsibility. This
sense spills over into other areas so that people get involved in other civic duties.
This meta outcome is predicted by open systems theory, the next higher-level theoretical base for
search conferences. Many of the above outcomes are part of an operational definition of civic
involvement new networks and relationships, a sense of empowerment and involvement, working
to achieve a desired future.
Table 2.1 (Cont.)
Proposition 3: Certain conditions must exist for an effective search to result. These conditions are
found in the context factors and in the intervention itself.
Sponsor characteristics that predict effectiveness are:
1. Rationale for choosing a search. The sponsors goal is to create a process for dialogue
and not validate or drive a pre-established outcome.
2. Perceived neutrality. The sponsor is not seen as having a desired outcome, or aligned
with any stakeholder groups, but rather is seen as a facilitator, encourager of the process.
3. Influence. The sponsor is recognized as an important part in the process and has used that
recognition to influence attendance.
4. Collaboration beliefs. The sponsor values, and understands the difficulty of, collaboration
as an effective way to approach the search topic and communicates that value and
understanding to potential attendees.
Issue characteristics that predict effectiveness are:
1. Salience. The higher the salience in the community of interest the greater the odds are that
the future plans are carried out.
2. Polarization. The more highly polarized the parties are around the search issue, the more
the plans focus on the process of building relationships and trust, and less on changing the
system around issues related to the content of the search topic; or the more difficult it is to
find any common ground to base action groups upon.
3. Maturity. The issue is ripe, meaning that there has been an opportunity for stakeholder
groups to form around it, there is information available about it, and it may even have been
worked, i.e. have been in the press, have been the subject of other meetings or efforts.
The more mature the issue, the more ambitious and realistic are the future plans.
Community characteristics that predict effectiveness are:
1. Individual involvement. Having people on the action groups who are currently involved
in community activities or have been in the past where that involvement has provided them
experience working collaboratively.
2. Organization and group involvement. Having participants where there exists and is a
history of the existence of organizations or groups that are involved in the community.
3. Density of networks. There exist networks and relationships where many people know of
each other, have worked with each on other projects, or are generally engaged in the
4. Forums for dialogue. There are many forums in the community of interest where
dialogue can take place, such as community meetings, churches, gathering places over food
and drink, etc.
Table 2.1 (Cont.)
The characteristics of the intervention that predict effectiveness are:
1. Getting the correct people to attend. There are no stakeholders who are either: 1) not
invited or 2) who refused to attend, who should have been there in order to meet the
definitions of right people or whole system found in the literature.
2. A review by the search community of the larger environment. The environmental
scan is taken into account as a part of the action planning.
3. Working only on issues for which there is common ground. Disagreements are worked
until genuine differences are found; these are posted on a disagree list and not worked by
the search community.
4. A work environment characterized by the democratic design principle. Tasks are
self managed and multi-tasking occurs.
5. There is some form of follow up mechanism that provides resources to action
planning groups. Provision is made for resources that action groups can use to include
such things as money, facilitation, meeting rooms, etc.
6. There is some form of activity that helps action groups organize themselves to
continue to operate according to the democratic design principle. What Gray (1989, p.
91) calls referent structures, or Emery calls Participative Design Workshops (PDWs) are
formed to carry forward and carry out the results from the search.
Table 2.2: Survey of Outcomes for Search Conferences and Future Search
Rate the degree to which the following outcomes must be present for you to assert that a search or
future search is effective. Place a check in the SC box to denote search, in the FS box to denote
Not at all essential to effectiveness Somewhat essential to effectiveness Very essential to effectiveness
1 2 3 4 5
Outcomes: SC FS SC FS SC FS SC FS SC FS
1. Sponsors objective is met
2. Action planning groups exist for common ground future statements
3. Action planning groups continue to meet and work until goal is met
4. Desired future is being realized
5. Desired future is diffused throughout the community
6. Action planning is diffused throughout the community
7. New networks and relationships of understanding are formed
8. Civic engagement, involvement increases
9. Desired future demonstrates active adaptation
10. Positive affect and energy are generated during & after the conference
11. An empowering experience of direct democracy occurs
The search conference literature is reviewed here to explain the theory in
greater detail and to provide the reader with the vocabulary used by practitioners.
The concepts, principles and theories upon which search conferences are based
include open systems theory, ecological learning, democratic structure,
rationalization of conflict, effective communication, and small group dynamics.
Each of these is explained below followed by the way it is operationalized in the
practice of searches along with how it is related to the propositions of this study.
The role of the conference manager is discussed briefly.
There is an interdependent, mutually determining relationship between a
system and its environment; the nature of that environment (four types are
identified by Emery and Trist) determines the systems structure and the kind of
relationship to the environment that it should have to survive and thrive (Emery
and Trist, 1965).
Emery and Trists theory is operationalized in searches by the use of the
environmental scan of the world and scan of the task environment (Figure 2.2).
The operating assumption for scanning is that a system needs to know the context
within which it does its work or carries out its mission in order to be relevant and
avoid entropy (Katz and Kahn, 1978). For example, an organization may make the
best buggy whips but fail because there is no market for them. An environmental
scan that identifies the importance of automobiles would tell them that buggy
whips are no longer needed. In addition to the classic and comprehensive
theoretical work of Katz and Kahn on open systems, there is a more specific theory
formulated by Emery (1993, pp. 233-35) behind the need to complete an
environmental scan when doing strategic planning. That theory states that All
elements, environment, system, learning and planning are governed by lawful
processes which can be known (Emery 1993, p. 235) (See Figure 2.2).
Figure 2.2: The Extended Social Field
This illustrates the lawful relationship between a system and its environment.
Environment (L 2,2)
Planning (L 1,2)
Learning (L 2,1)
System or Organization (L 1,1)
Source: Adapted from M. Emery, (1993, p. 235).
The environment is designated by Emery as L2,2. The system is designated
as Ll,l. The influence of the environment on the system is designated as L2,l, and
signifies a learning relationship between the environment and the system. The
opposite relationship, the influence of the system on the environment, is designated
as LI,2, and signifies a planning relationship between them. Thus, the search
conference opens with a scan of the L2,2 the environment so that the system
can glean learnings from it and based upon those learnings in the buggy whip
example, that automobiles are the dominant mode of transportation, plan
In addition, open systems theory includes the seminal work of Emery and
Trist (1965) on causal textures of environments. They identified four types of
environments: type I, random placid, (largely theoretical), type II, clustered placid
(the hunting gathering small village), both now outdated, type III disturbed
reactive (like type II with the addition of competition in a win-lose game) and type
IV, turbulent (dynamic, unpredictable). Healey (1997, pp. 7-8) has also identified
four types of environments that are similar to Emery and Trists. Because the
environment for most contemporary organizations is characterized as type IV,
turbulent, the linear, problem-solving planning approach that works in a type III
environment is no longer effective. Instead, what is needed in a type IV
environment is puzzle solving and recognition of the role of the environment (L2,2)
and its effect on the system. Search conferences do this in the first task of the
funnel (Figure 1.1).
The open systems principle is the basis for Intervention factor B (Figure 2.1),
which states that a review by the search community of the larger environment is
one of the factors that predicts success or effectiveness of the conference. It is also
expressed in the Outcomes factor 3, active adaptation occurs, which means that
the action groups continue to scan the environment and adjust their plans
accordingly after the conference.
People are capable of directly perceiving meaning from their environment, so
they do not need to be formally taught." As a result, ordinary people, not
experts, possess the knowledge they need to participate in planning for their system
The theoretical underpinnings of this concept are well researched by Emery
(1993, pp. 40-85), quite complex and based on the direct realism work of Gibson
(1966, 1979). The portions that are relevant to this thesis are the characteristics of
the new educational paradigm that Emery presents. Some of these characteristics
The environment is recognized as having an informational structure that is
immediately accessible by the active perceptual system of humans (as
contrasted with the passive receptors of humans hypothesized by the
traditional educational paradigm of Lockes tabula rasa).
The perceptual systems of living species have evolved so as to detect and
extract this information from their environment despite a great deal of
noise from humans sensory mechanisms (taste, smell, touch, auditory,
etc.), that are not the basis of perception in the new educational paradigm.
(Emery 1993, pp. 52-53).
The assumption made from these characteristics is that people use common
sense to know the environment and do not need an expert nor need to be taught
about the environment and its implications for them and their system. Healey
(1997) and Habermas (1987) support this conception of ecological learning. They
note the shift into a phenomenological interpretation of the relationship of
knowledge to action whereby all forms of knowledge are socially constructed and
assert that knowledge of science and the techniques of experts are not as different
from practical reasoning as the instrumental rationalists have claimed (Healey,
1997, p. 29).
Such theories as these are operationalized in searches by the very nature of
the search itself a group of thirty-five to fifty people who are interested in the
search topic are gathered to make sense of their environment in community so that
they may plan as a community.
From this theoretical basis is derived factor A in the Intervention column
(Figure 2.1) getting the correct people to attend. By including the correct
people (those who are interested in the system, have influence in the system, have
knowledge of the system), the opportunity exists for gathering relevant and valid
data upon which plans are based. Ecological learning is also related to factor D in
the Intervention column, a work environment structured on the democratic design
principle. The democratic design principle, explained in greater detail below, is
based in part on the assumption that people are capable of self-direction because
they have knowledge, through direct perception, and do not need to be taught or
supervised by another person in a higher position, be it a conference manager,
expert, or boss.
Search conferences are based upon the democratic design principle that
specifies that the people who do the work must be permitted to be responsible for
the control and coordination of that work. This creates a cooperative, rather than a
competitive community or organization (Emery, 1994). (The other design principle
the bureaucratic is premised upon control and coordination being at least one
level above those doing the work, thus creating competition and fragmentation).
The design principles are a major premise in much of the work of the Emerys.
The discovery and formulation of design principle 1 and design principle 2 are
foundational to most of the rest of their work and thinking. The work came
originally from the coal mine studies that Fred Emery and Ken Bamford analyzed
with Eric Trist in England after World War II (Trist and Bamford, 1971). They
discovered that coal mining crews with higher productivity, lower accident rates,
fewer absences and greater job satisfaction were organized differently than the
traditional coal mining crew. This difference was based upon self-direction and
control over their day-to-day work and multi-skilling. They dubbed this design
principle 2, the democratic design principle. Design principle 1 was the
bureaucratic approach to organization, in which each man had one job or skill set,
and work direction came from a foreman, with the concomitant result that workers
channeled their communication through the foreman instead of communicating
directly with each other. As a further result, workers lacked knowledge of work
demands upstream or downstream from their own job. This produced an
organization with higher accidents, more absenteeism and lower productivity than
the design principle 2 structure.
These theoretical ideas are operationalized in the search by its very nature and
by the nature of the facilitation or conference management. It is assumed that the
correct people, if gathered and focused on a task, can and will accomplish that task
(planning for XYZ issue) without supervision by someone one level above them
the foreman in the form of a conference manager or expert outsider who will
tell them the right answer. Furthermore, everyone at the conference is capable of
performing several jobs including the analysis tasks described in the funnel,
recording group work on flip charts, reporting out such work to the larger
community, and facilitating small group discussions. This results in the high
affect and energy levels created identified in factor 4 in the Outcomes column of
The following is a telling example of the democratic design principle at work.
This author was the lead consultant on a community search where we did three
simultaneous conferences. At lunchtime of the first full day, the sponsor related
that she was hearing complaints about the way one of the conferences was being
handled by the two conference managers. During the debriefing at lunch, the
managers of that conference mentioned that it had gotten off track and they were
concerned that the participants were not happy with what was happening. Based
upon the authors talk with the client, their concern was confirmed. They
discovered in the course of the debrief that they had moved out of the conference
management role into a more supervisory role by intervening in the content of
the conference topic and driving the discussion toward a direction (design principle
1 behaviors), instead of letting the participants drive the content agenda and self-
manage. After lunch, the conference managers explicitly labeled their behavior
with the participants, apologized, and changed back into the role of conference
manager. The conference got back on track and by dinnertime participants
expressed satisfaction with the changes.
The difference between design principle 1 (bureaucratic and directive) and
design principle 2 (democratic and self-managing) behaviors may seem subtle,
especially when seen in practice, but it is critical to the success of searches that the
design principles not be violated. The moment they are, participants react with the
basic assumption behavior identified by Bion (below) in this case
dependence/counter dependence with the facilitators and fighting the facilitators.
In Figure 2.1, the democratic design principle is related to factor D in the
Intervention column, a work environment structured on the democratic design
principle and factors 2 and 8 in the Outcomes column, viable jointly formulated
action groups are formed and direct democracy leads to empowerment.
Rationalization of Conflict
Making compromises creates a lose-lose situation, since both sides must give
up something. Consensus is often elusive; in practice, it can mean one party gets
worn down and agrees to support the decision. Instead, if people search for the
things they already have in common and with which they agree, they can forge a
working relationship to create a commonly shared future. This creates a container
for discussing what differences there are in an objective, rational way. Common
ground, not differences, becomes the basis for the relationship (Emery, 1993).
In a search, the conference manager presents, up front, the governing rule of
common ground. It is made clear that work groups and discussions are to put their
energy only into ideas for which there is common ground. Disagreements are
rationalized by first exploring them to establish that they are indeed fundamental
disagreements and not semantic differences. Such true disagreements are then
posted for all to see. The assumption is that when people work together on items of
common ground, they establish a working relationship that makes it possible to
later explore true differences. (Emery, 1993, pp. 251-3). And by working only on
common ground, it is possible for a large group of people to make progress toward
a desired future about the topic of the conference. This overcomes the inertia that
can result from focusing on areas of disagreement that paralyze a group of people
from making changes to their system.
An illustration of this is a conference on water quality referenced earlier. The
participants had most often seen each other in water court, so sitting in a conference
together was a big change in behavior for them. One of the participants was
delighted at the idea of common ground because it enabled him to say to a fellow
participant that he would and could collaborate on a certain part of the issue, but on
another part of the issue that he could say Ill see you in court. Finding the
common ground and posting the disagree list freed them to work on common
ground because there was no pretence that they would also work on the disagree
items that had paralyzed their working relationship in the past.
Habermas (1987) has written extensively on open communication and ideal
speech situations. The search community of theorists and practitioners has relied
on the closely related and earlier work of Solomon Asch (1952). His research
identified four basic conditions needed for effective communication, true dialogue,
to occur. There must be shared assumptions (a) that all parties are talking about the
same world, (b) that all human beings have basic psychological similarities, (c) that
as a result of a and b, then people develop a shared psychological field, and (d)
people will experience their common dilemmas and plan accordingly (Weisbord,
1992, p. 22; Weisbord, 1995, p. 59; Emery, 1989, p. 68).
Effective communication is operationalized in conferences by the
environmental scan and the creation of a desired future of the world. (The creation
of a desired future of the world is not found in the practice of future searches.
Instead future searches rely upon the environmental scan to create the shared
psychological field, the interpretation of the mind map of the scan, and the reality
dialogue discussion before the action planning phase).
Factor 7 in the Outcomes column (Figure 2.1) identifies this as common
ground is the impetus for change.
Small Group Dynamics
The seminal work of Bion and the Tavistock Institute, where Trist and Emery
worked extensively, identifies two modes that operate in small groups of people (4-
12): the creative working mode, and the basic assumptions mode. There are
three basic assumptions (ba) that distract groups from the productive working
mode fight/flight (baF), dependency baD), and pairing (baP), when group
members turn to each other in pairs to do work (Emery 1993, 1996; Bion, 1961, p.
105). Searches rely on Bion's two modes, even though searches are not small
groups, to assess and monitor the functionality of the dynamics occurring during a
According to Emery (1993, pp. 245-47), the basic assumptions fight/flight,
dependency and pairing responses of members of work groups are triggered by a
design principle 1, bureaucratic structure. When in this mode, work does not get
done. Instead, there is a focus on the dynamics of the group, qua group, and the
task is neglected. In the example given above of the three simultaneous searches,
the group moved into fighting with the facilitators.
In a design principle 2 structure, people are able to immediately move into the
creative working mode, hence searches result in actions and the creation of a
desired future for the system. (It is noted that Emery has begun to find that pairing
may be a precursor to the creative working mode and not the distraction from task
that Bion hypothesized. This finding does not impinge on this thesis but is only
mentioned here for clarity in representing Emerys work). Emery also explains the
creative working mode by the ABX relationship (Emery 1999, pp. 51-53). She
claims that a focus on a task, the X, by two parties A and B again results in
actions instead of basic assumptions behavior.
The role of basic assumptions is operationalized in conferences by use of a
democratic structure small groups are self-managed, the conference manager is
not an expert in the topic and does not participate in the content of the discussions.
There are no experts or presentations permitted in a conference. The focus on
common ground and the accomplishment of action plans keeps the group in an
ABX relationship. This too results in factor 4 in the Outcomes column of high
affect and energy levels are created and continue.
Emery and Trist designed the first search conference in 1959 based upon most
of these principles and theories. Subsequent conferences were refined to reflect all
of these principles in the form presented in Figure 1.1. It should be noted that
Emery (personal communication, May 20, 1998) has added another refinement
based on her determination that success in the formation of viable action groups is
increased if the conference is followed by a modified participative design workshop
(Emery 1993, pp. 110-119), which she calls a two-phase conference.
In summary, open systems theory is the rationale for the analysis of the
context the environment; ecological learning is the basis for no lectures or other
expert in-put; the democratic structure drives the self-management of tasks; the
rationalization of conflict keeps the groups focused on common ground; the
environmental scan and review of the history create the condition for effective
communication so that mutual understanding takes place; and small group
dynamics contribute criteria for the diagnosis of dysfunction and guidance for the
most functional role for the conference manager focus on the task.
The Role of the Conference Manager
Manager behaviors can be important in determining conference effectiveness,
as illustrated in Chapter 6, in one of the cases reported by Oels (2003). Several of
the theoretical foundations provide guidance and prescriptions for the behavior and
role of the conference manager. Figure 2.1 refers to these as a democratic work
environment and working only on common ground.
In general, the manager is responsible for keeping the conference on track
with respect to the use of large blocks of time, facilitates discussions that take place
in plenary, records work done in plenary, and assigns the tasks of the funnel.
The ecological learning principle means that the manager offers no expert advice or
consultation. Any suggestions are limited to process, not content, and are made
only after gaining permission from the group to share the suggestion. The small
group dynamic of dependency is avoided by letting the groups self-manage and not
intervening in the process or the content as illustrated in the community search
example above. Some conference managers actually leave the room after making
the assignment and checking for accuracy of understanding.
It is not unusual, by the time of the action planning portion of the search, for
the managers to be seated in a comer chatting or visiting because the action groups
are, by then, fully formed and functioning and focused on their task. In a search in
upstate New York, the managers were visiting over a cup of coffee waiting for the
action groups to complete their tasks before the next report out. The lead
consultant, who was not conversant, nor comfortable, with the conference manager
role (a major problem throughout this conference for the conference management
team members who were experts in search), mildly reprimanded the consultants for
sitting around. He wanted the team to get to work or look busy. An
amusing post-script to this story is that at a recent conference the author and her
colleague were sitting around having coffee at the action planning portion of the
conference and the author re-told the story of upstate New York and during the
telling of it one of the sponsors passed by and good naturedly teased about the
conference managers sitting around.
One of the criticisms of searches that Crombie (1985) identifies is that
searches are open to manipulation by the manager. This criticism is dealt with in
the next chapter.
The following chapter discusses the relevant literature.
A REVIEW OF THE RELEVANT LITERATURE
I know of no safe repository of ultimate powers of society but the
people themselves. And if we think them not enlightened enough to
exercise their choice with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to
remove their choice, but rather to inform their discretion.
Thomas Jefferson. (1820). The writings of Thomas Jefferson.
Areas of Related Literature
The broader arena of literature to which searches are related include strategic
planning, collaboration, planned change, citizen participation and direct
democracy, and the role of public manager. There is also literature in the form of
nine published studies that evaluate search conferences. These are not dealt with
here but in Chapter 6, because they are being treated as replications of this study
and a meta-analysis of these cases is made in that chapter. Following Yins (1994)
concept of replication logic as the approach to case studies, these nine case studies
are used as an extension of this study for both literal and theoretical replication to
test rival hypotheses.
The contribution of each of the related literatures are discussed and analyzed
for their relationship to search literature. This is preceded by a discussion of the
one reference found that identifies criticisms of searches.
Criticism of Searches
Crombie (1985), an experienced practitioner of searches, primarily in
Australia, reviews the theoretical underpinnings, identifies seven criticisms, and
presents a typology of searches. The typology is dealt with in detail in Chapter 8
where this authors typology is presented.
The seven criticisms of searches are that they are:
have a task-orientation
confuse collaboration and consensus
open to manipulation by conference managers
favor the educated
The negative connotation of a talk-fest is that searches are all talk and no
action. On the positive side, searches can be seen as a celebration of oral culture,
where words take on meaning based on the social context. Indeed, Emery
(personal communication, May 20, 1998) makes the point that the oral nature of
searches means they can be used effectively in settings where the participants are
not literate, as with the aborigines of Australia. The findings of this thesis will
show that talk had a valued outcome in many of the cases studied mutual
understanding that led to dialogue and learning and the formation of new networks.
The task orientation criticism is one aspect of searches that divides Emery
from Weisbord/Janoff, who use more evocative techniques to get to the outcome,
such as skits and sharing of memorabilia for introductory activities. Crombies
point about this criticism is that because of the task orientation, care must be taken
to assure some basic conditions for success are in place: 1. getting the task right, 2.
finding the right people to work on it, 3. and managing the process effectively.
This thesis explored some of these conditions and they are discussed in Chapters 6
That searches do not lead to action is related to the talk-fest criticism.
Crombie acknowledges that some searches do not lead to further action, but notes
that this can be a positive achievement because it closes off a blind alley.
The fourth criticism concerns the differences between consensus and
collaboration. A common misrepresentation of searches is to describe them as
consensus seeking events. The idea of a deliberative process where the group
explores its shared values and aspirations as a potential basis for collaborative
action in the future is what a search should be. Practitioners who understand this
and can both explain it to potential sponsors, planning groups and assembled
conferences, and manage the conference so that it occurs, is key to addressing this
The suppression of conflict is closely related to the collaboration-consensus
issue and is addressed by the rationalization of conflict principle described in
Chapter 2. Martin (2000) also explores this potential weakness in her dissertation.
Crombie identifies measures that can be adopted to mitigate this criticism. First, he
mentions that in the preparatory phase, participants who represent alternative or
opposing perspectives should be included. Conflict should be rationalized to
clarify what is and is not in dispute. Lastly he mentions other techniques that fit the
style of the conference manager, all of them have, as its purpose, to moderate rather
than either suppress or exacerbate the conflict.
The criticism that the conference is open to manipulation by the conference
managers, either consciously or unconsciously, would have to be exerted indirectly,
according to Crombie. Because of the conference concept and structure, there is no
legitimate opportunity for conference mangers to exercise such manipulation. We
saw an example in Chapter 2 where conference managers unintentionally broke
role and got involved in the content. Fortunately there was a mechanism to correct
this in the example, but it is possible that it could go uncorrected.
That searches favor the educated and articulate over the uneducated and
inarticulate is an irony, given the commitment of the inventors (Trist and Emery) to
demystify and humanize the planning process. With tongue in cheek Crombie
notes that for the uneducated one day is adequate time to complete the search, but
for academics in bureaucratic environments, four days are needed. McCullum et al.
(2003) have findings that lend some support to this criticism. Their findings are
discussed in detail in Chapter 6 where the meta-analysis is discussed. Crombie
comments that the search process is flexible enough to deal with different speeds of
thought or ease of speech. There is a deeper issue, however, that Crombie ignores,
and that has to do with the perceived differences in power between educated and
uneducated and the degree to which that affects participation. If the entire
conference has only uneducated or educated participants, then the dynamics change
and this criticism may not apply, though he refers to the hostility that some
intellectuals and professionals have expressed about searches.
We now turn to a discussion of the related literature.
Tom Peters (1994) expresses a prevailing view succinctly in the title of his
article Strategic Planning, RIP. This essay is his reaction to a book by Henry
Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, (1994) in which Mintzberg
cites three problems with traditional strategic planning:
Process kills: the focus on deciding rightly rather than on the right decision
stems from Taylorisms best way and is ineffective especially in current
unstable [type] IV environments.
Hard data aint: the emphasis on hard data leads to the fallacy of measuring
what is measurable at the expense of not measuring what is meaningful,
such as values and other soft data that are essential for synthesis.
Woe betide the separation of thought and action: the dissociation of
thinking from acting is done in service of being detached, the major
problem with planning plans are made and sit on a shelf.
Mintzbergs identification of these problems of traditional strategic planning
gamer agreement from Ackoff (1974), Emery (1993), Freeman (1984), Friedman
(1973, 1987), Gray (1989), and Healey (1997), all of whom offer other paradigms
as alternatives to the hierarchical, staff oriented, directive, low involvement form of
traditional planning based upon machine age principles of reductionism and
analysis without regard for any interaction with the environment (a closed system).
For Ackoff, his alternative paradigm is called systems age planning, for Emery it
is open systems, for Freeman it is a stakeholder approach, Friedman names it
transactional planning, for Gray it is collaboration as negotiated order and
appreciative planning, and Healey calls it the institutionalist approach.
Discussed below are the common features of this new paradigm that are shared by
these scholars that include:
The role of the external environment
The relationship of thought or knowledge to action
The importance of involvement and ownership of citizens
The effect of ideal seeking
Role of the Environment
Ackoff and Fred Emery collaborated on their thinking about the role of the
environment and coauthored books establishing its theoretical foundations, hence
the similarity of systems age and open systems theory. As mentioned above,
for Emery planning is the LI,2 relationship, where a system acts to impact its
environment (L2,2). Ackoff (1974) defines planning as an attempt to deal
holistically with a system of problems which he calls messes and which the
Emerys call puzzle solving in contrast to problem solving. Of the four
attitudes toward planning that he identifies (inactive, preactive, reactive and
interactive), the fourth is the most effective and relevant because it focuses on
designing a desired future and inventing ways to bring it about through: 1)
participation of stakeholders, 2) coordination so that all aspects of the system are
planned for simultaneously, 3) integration with all levels of the system and of the
strategic and tactical, and 4) continuous because purposeful systems and their
environment are changing and no plan retains its value over time, so must be
adapted. These concepts are embodied in search conferences, i.e., participation and
coordination by convening the right people with a broad view of the system; the
focus on action planning that will bring about the desired future identified in the
conference; and active adaptation of plans in response to a changing environment.
This open systems/systems age approach relies heavily upon the belief that a
persons or societys ability to manage its affairs depends more on an
understanding of and attitude toward the world that contains them than on problem
solving ability. It is a contextualist approach described by Williams (1982) and
Freeman (1984, p. 34) who defines planning and policy as being concerned with
the configuration of an organizations resources in relationship to its external
environment. All of this rests on Emery and Trists work with causal textures
(1965) and the identification of turbulent (type IV) environments and their effect on
organizations and systems.
Relationship of Thought and Knowledge to Action
Friedman agrees with Mintzbergs criticism of the separation of thought and
action and calls it the separation of decision from action. He suggests that planning
and implementation are not two distinct steps in the planning process with the
intervening steps of decision making (most often by decision makers who are
different people than the professional planner that did the thinking) as practiced in
traditional planning. Instead his transactive planning suggests that the focus of
planning must shift from decision to action and when this happens, the rationality
of decision-making (a concern of public policy theory) is no longer a problem;
rather the quality of the action becomes the concern. He concurs with Mintzberg
that a scientific management approach to planning methods is ineffective when the
environment has changed from a stable one to a turbulent one. In a search
conference, the environmental scan is essential; the conference decisions are not a
recommendation to anyone else, but the conference is self-authorized so that
thought and action are one everyone at the conference is authorized, nay
expected, to take actions to bring about the desired future of the system. The
conference manager asks the participants to test their action plans against the
environmental scan in order to determine that they are relevant and contextualized;
action groups are encouraged to modify plans after the conference in response to
changes in the environment, to engage in active adaptation.
Friedmans writing is highly theoretical, yet treats planning theory very
thoroughly and criticizes the very core of traditional planning thought and practice
(1973, 1987). He deals with rationality extensively identifying two kinds of
rationality. The first is functional expert focus on means and efficiency; the
second is substantial a focus on intelligent insight into behavior of complex
social systems and ends a process he calls planning. He also goes to Webster
for definitions and distinguishes between rationality, a cognitive function, and
rationalization, a social process through which parties are progressively brought
into conformity based on the principle of rational thought. He then offers two
kinds of rationality, formal and material. Formal separates facts from values and
focuses on analysis and decisions. Material takes values into consideration in the
formation of social arrangement to assess suitability for declared societal purposes.
(The distinction between values and facts contains echoes of the
politics/administration dichotomy referenced in the public administration literature
[Wilson, 1887; Perry & Kraemer, 1991]). The Emerys rationalization of conflict
refers to this social process of material rationality.
Citizen Involvement and Ownership
Another feature of the new paradigm is the idea of public or citizen
ownership and involvement in policy and planning. For Friedman (1973, p. xvii)
the process of societal guidance is too important to be left to experts; it must
reach down and draw in increasing numbers of people into direct engagement with
their society, now called the creation of social capital by Coleman (1988, 1990),
Putnam (1996) and others. Friedman suggests that involvement is more than the
participation ideology, which in the past has meant getting input. Instead, by direct
engagement, he means that citizens and participants .. ,acquir[e] a sense of
competence at the level of the group in tasks set largely by the group itself but
related to the larger enterprise of which it forms a part. (p. xvii). This could be the
Emerys definition of design principle 2 as it captures the idea of self-management
and control at the level where the work is being done.
Healeys institutionalist approach, developed by her integration of planning
theory and philosophy, and which she also refers to as the interpretive or
communicative approach, conceives knowledge and value as not mere objectives to
be discovered by scientific inquiry, but as actively constituted through social,
interactive processes. Public policy, hence planning, in her opinion, is a social
process through which ways of thinking, ways of valuing and ways of acting are
actively constructed by participants (Healey 1997, pp. 28-29). Public policies that
are concerned with managing co-existence in shared spaces must include all
persons with a stake in the place so they have ownership of the range of knowledge
and reasoning that led to a certain decision.
Searches are the embodiment of involvement. By definition, they are the
convention of the full range of stakeholders who are in turn authorized to take
action on the search topic. Indeed, a major outcome, the meta-outcome in Figure
2.1, is civic engagement. Chrislip and Larson (1994) take this idea and suggest that
collaborative processes, such as searches, can and do increase civic engagement.
Ideal Seeking and Appreciative Inquiry
Ackoff (1974) begins with the question: What can an individual who is
dissatisfied with the state of the world do? His answer produce a mobilizing idea
for collective action represents an idea that is a combination of what might be (an
ideal) and a hypothesis about the consequences of the ideal. His criticism of the
machine age is that it has no use for teleological concepts, no sense of the
mobilizing idea that speaks to purpose. He asserts that systems are purposeful.
One of Emerys core ideas is that people are purposeful and ideal seeking.
Gray is more practical, rather than theoretical (1987), citing Trists joint
appreciation, which involves making judgments of fact as well as of value about
how things should be (the ideal, again), as the engine that mobilizes action on a
task (pp. 229-30). Related to this paradigm shift in planning is the work of
Cooperwriter and Srivastva (1987) and their original research and invention of
appreciative inquiry. They assert that looking at problems what is wrong is
de-energizing; instead, focusing on images of success provides energy and positive
tension to create what is desired rather than focusing on how to solve a problem.
Fritz (1989a) has a related concept that he calls structural tension that operates in
his larger process of creating. By focusing on what one wants as an outcome (the
ideal) and comparing it with current reality Fritz says structural tension is created
that energizes the manifestation of the desired outcome.
In searches the desired future of the search topic is created by the assembled
stakeholders, disagreements (problems) are put aside and the long-term ideal is
held up as the energizing force that drives short-term actions. For the Emerys,
problem solving is an inappropriate, non-viable response to the turbulent (type IV)
environment. Turbulent times require puzzle solving focusing on ideals and
ends, instead of the means a concept that is integral to appreciative inquiry,
which focuses on what has succeeded in the past as a way to know how to succeed
in the future.
The collaboration literature discussed below will first present definitions of
collaboration, examine its criticisms and limits and, last, discuss the characteristics
of successful collaboration.
Grays comprehensive work on collaboration offers a definition (1987, pp.
226-28) that challenges the traditional focus on transactions the exchange of
resources and offers instead the idea of negotiated order, a more dynamic
approach. Collaboration is a negotiated order created among stakeholders to
control environmental turbulence by regulating the exchange relationships among
them. Its purpose is to advance a shared vision. Mattessich and Monsey (1992, p.
7) offer a definition, adopted also by Chrislip and Larson (1994): it is a mutually
beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more parties to
achieve common goals. The relationship includes a commitment to define the
mutuality of the relationship and the goals, a jointly developed structure of shared
responsibility, mutual authority and accountability for success, and sharing of
resources and rewards. They distinguish between cooperation, coordination and
Chrislip and Larson in their case study approach (1994) chronicle many
applications in the public sector of collaborative processes that include varied
stakeholders. They assert that these processes are capable of creating social capital,
a concept based on original thinking by L. J. Hanifan (1920), popularized by
Coleman (1990), and researched recently by Putnam (1996) in Italy then explored
for its application in the United States (Putnam, 2000). In this latest work, Putnam
cites extensive evidence of the erosion of social capital in America. Chrislip and
Larson (1994) claim that collaborative processes produce civic community.
Searches, as defined above, are a collaborative process. The purpose is to create a
shared vision and joint strategies to address concerns that go beyond the purview of
any particular party.
Criticism of Collaboration
Lay observers occasionally express skepticism about the value of
collaboration. A cogent critique of collaboration is offered by McCloskey (1996)
in the same issue of the High Country News (a weekly newspaper that focuses on
issues of the American West) that proclaims, "collaboration is breaking out all over
the west." McCloskey, in a memo to his staff at the Sierra Club (and reprinted in
the High Country News), opines that collaboration looks good on the surface; it is
decentralized government, it is place-based, it can produce more creative and
acceptable solutions than the federal government and it is a win-win approach.
McCloskey sees its faults, and numbers among them that corporate America has
become expert at manipulating the collaborative process, that a minority can
paralyze the process because of the consensus decision rule, and that collaborative
methods are so time-intensive as to cut some stakeholders out of the process. This
places the local citizen or small interest group at a disadvantage. The time-
intensive nature of collaboration can demobilize the individual citizen who may
have a job to go to, or small stakeholder group who may not have the staff to
devote to collaborative processes.
Snow (1996, p. 40) also suggests that consensus-based processes are not an
unconditional good and that they reflect the structural tension between the forces of
Madison and Jefferson. Madisons vision of government was to keep interest
groups apart and engaged in perpetual warfare toward a win-lose political
solution, or more often in Snows opinion, gridlock. Jefferson suggested a face-to-
face democracy where dialogue prevails. Snow refers to Kemmis (1990) two
conditions that are Jeffersonian in nature for breaking the gridlock: 1) the
reawakening of the res publicathe table around which we all sit in a democracy,
and 2) the possibility that reasoned debate can replace special interests.
Searches are based upon Jeffersons vision of citizen involvement and the res
publica. The Emerys, as well as Chrislip and Larson, claim that collaborative
process can transform public policy and planning. The Emerys might agree with
McCloskey that consensus permits a minority to paralyze the discussion.
However, they differentiate consensus from common ground that part of a search
issue or topic over which there is already agreement but which needs discovery
through dialogue. The concept of common ground and the rationalization of
conflict avoid this paralysis, though McCloskey may be correct that the common
ground solution may be the lowest possible common denominator. But beginning
with any common ground, however lowly, according to the Emerys, is the
beginning of building a relationship of collaboration, a valuable good that
McCloskey does not appreciate in his memo. For example, the water quality
search mentioned in Chapter 2 began with a common ground vision for a shared
database for decision-making, a monumental step for these adversaries to think
about. They knew working out the mechanics would be very difficult, but they
could agree in principle. They trusted that working on this would make it possible
for them to discover other areas for cooperation about not just the quality of the
water, but its quantity a question wholly outside the definition of the conference
topic, but perhaps the more important topic.
The time consuming nature of collaboration is a legitimate criticism.
Searches are intended to take an otherwise lengthy strategic planning process and
condense it. At times potential clients have complained that two and a half days is
too much time. Yet the author has seen two hundred people in four concurrent
searches take a full three days to plan because the pain of their existing situation
was so great that taking three days to plan became essential. The sponsor knew
that if the citizens of three rural counties in New York did not act, they would be
out of business as viable communities. The people, too, knew that and they came
for the full time.
The search is intended to level the playing field so that experts at
collaboration cannot take the upper hand. This is done partially by making sure
there is more than one of every animal on the ark. When the planning group
selects stakeholders, it tries to ensure that each stakeholder interest is represented
by more than one person. If there was any failing in the water quality search cited
above, it was that there was only one designated environmentalist who agreed to
attend. Some non-environmentalists in the room were able to give voice to that
interest by role playing. This was a source of humor, and it did keep that interest
in front of the group and did not strand the lone environmentalist.
Characteristics of Successful Collaboration
Gates (1991) offers a broad statement about what characterizes communities
that work. They use collaborative problem solving and consensus decision-
making; leadership sees its role as convener of the diverse parties. Carpenter
(1988) identifies the characteristics of public disputes:
There is a complicated network of interests, some of which are
organizations or groups, and some of whom are individuals, so the problem
of a representative is created who has to take things back to an
organization or interest group.
New parties emerge as the process unfolds, as do new issues.
Varying levels of expertise exist because of the nature of the problems.
There are different forms of power financial, legal, knowledge, numbers,
access to decision-makers, personal respect, friendship, experience with
The lack of a continuous relationship means parties do not know each other.
Different decision-making procedures exist varying organizational
structures mean decisions are made different ways.
Unequal accountability exists corporations are held accountable by law;
whereas citizens do not have that constraint.
Carpenter suggests that an effective way to deal with these contingencies of
public disputes is what Gates suggests: that the decision-makers, leaders, become
facilitators who commit resources to identify diverse interests and bring these
together for face-to-face discussion and engage in joint decision-making based on
consensus. Gray (1989) calls this collaboration. Others (Bingham, 1986;
Mattessich & Monsey, 1992; Gray, 1989) have data that support both Gates and
Bingham conducted a focused study on the results of environmental dispute
resolution to determine what characterized successful ones. Her definition of
dispute resolution refers to a variety of approaches that allow the parties to meet
face-to-face to reach a mutually acceptable resolution of the issue in dispute or a
potentially controversial situation, other than litigation or administrative hearings.
So although she did not limit her study to collaborative processes only, she did look
at face-to-face situations that Gray might call collaborations. Binghams criteria
for success included how often agreements were reached, the extent to which the
parties supported the agreements and the intangible factor of improved
Factors that affected the likelihood of success included:
Mediators did adequate pre-work so the parties could decide whether to
proceed, and mediators established what the nature of the ground rules
Parties needed some incentive to negotiate if they could get more of what
they wanted another way, they would not participate in the collaboration.
An interest-based approach to the process influences whether agreements
are reached (versus a positional approach [Fisher & Ury, 1981]).
The most significant factor was whether people who have the authority to
implement the decision participated directly in the process. When the
decision maker participated, there was eighty-five percent implementation;
without them, it was sixty-seven percent.
What did not affect the collaboration were the number of parties, the presence
of a deadline, or the number of issues. Further, she found that few factors are
absolute conditions for success because almost all factors are amenable to tradeoffs
among the participants.
Although searches are not billed as a conflict resolution method in fact,
they are specifically exempted from that by the Emerys concept of common
ground and the rationalization of conflict Binghams findings are supportive of
search methods. The concept of the search being self-authorized it is not a
recommendation to a higher level of authority for implementation is supported
by Binghams major finding that implementation is affected by the presence of the
decision makers in the room. Her finding also confirms Friedmans concerns that
the separation of thought from action is ineffective. Grays explanation is that
collaboration is power sharing because the stakeholders mutually authorize each
other to reach a decision. This does not mean they have equal power, but they have
countervailing power because they are dependent on each other in some ways in
that domain or context.
Binghams findings do raise the issue of conflict and its relationship to
searches. Some practitioners believe that highly polarized parties will not enter the
creative working mode at a search. One instance to support this is of a search with
a school district in Colorado that failed because the conflict so polarized the parties
that in the end they could not get beyond it. So although they could agree on a
desired future, they could not agree on the issue in dispute and could not put that
issue aside. Participants played along with the managers of the conference and
went through the activities, but at the end of the conference, an argument broke out
about the major issue around which there was contention and people left without
joining any action groups.
It is not clear to what this failure can be attributed, however. It could be there
were people missing who should have been there, the management of the
conference may have been less than competent, the topic may not have been
focused enough, the common ground rule may not have been enforced, the conflict
may not have been adequately rationalized, or, as one of the managers
hypothesized, the conflict needed to be managed before the conference in order to
permit people to work at the conference. This conference raises the question of
whether there are issues or circumstances that are not appropriate for a search.
Search theory (Emery, 1993) would argue that searches are appropriate for any
topic as long as the conditions for success are met (Weisbord, 1995, p. 4), which
are reflected in the context and intervention factors in Figure 2.1, Model of the
Study, and if its application is for the creation of a strategic set of goals and not for
implementation of established goals.
Mattessich and Monsey (1992) did an extensive literature review upon which
they based their work. Their research identified nineteen factors that influence the
success of collaborative processes. They have placed them into six categories:
1. Environment [context]
They also cite the number of studies that found each of the nineteen factors to
be relevant. Under the Environment category, the most important factor is a history
of collaboration or cooperation in the community. This is relevant to the above
discussion about the search in the school district where there had not been such a
history. The interviews used to gather data for the present study ask questions to
determine the extent to which this factor existed, the context factors in Figure 2.1.
In the category of Membership, the two largest factors and the two largest
of the nineteen factors, by the way were mutual respect, understanding and trust,
and an appropriate cross-section of members at the collaboration. Searches do not
require that the first of these exists, but they do require the second condition
that the right people are in attendance. The process of the search is intended to
build mutual respect. For example, in the water quality search, there was very low
trust. In fact, some of the members of the planning group brought their attorneys
along to sit on the sidelines to be sure nothing untoward happened to them! The
attorneys stopped coming after the second or third planning session when they
discovered the search agenda was open without a predetermined outcome.
Under the Process/Structure category, there were two factors that were
especially important, viz., that members share a stake in both the process and the
outcome, and that there are multiple layers of decision-makers in the collaboration.
In searches both of these factors are operative. Members are in control of their
small group discussion; they are encouraged to self-manage their process and the
functioning of their action planning groups during and after the conference. The
example cited in Chapter 2 of the three concurrent searches in the rural town in
Colorado supports this. The conference managers violated this factor by directing
the discussion, taking control over the process from the participants, and the
participants rebelled. Multiple layers of decision-makers are not explicitly
addressed in searches when getting the right people in the room.
Under the Communication category, open and frequent communication
among group members was the most important factor. In an effective conference,
there would be interaction among conference participants and within action
planning groups; action groups would be updating each other and sharing
information. This thesis attempts to measure a change in this factor. In searches,
frequent communication would be a measure of effectiveness of the search as
identified in Outcome factors 9 and 10 of Figure 2.1 in the column, new networks
are created that facilitate action, and dialogue took place and resulted in mutual
understanding of a shared world.
In the Purpose category, the most important factor was a concrete purpose
with attainable goals and objectives. In a search, the desirable future around the
search topic is intended to be somewhat idealistic and a challenge or stretch for the
search community. But it is also intended to be attainable. The participants are
completely in charge of it, however. They decide if it is attainable yet lofty. The
role of conference manager is to ask the question about attainability, and to ask
participants to test it against the desired and probable world they agreed to at the
beginning of the search. During the action planning activities, action groups are
asked to examine constraints and strategize ways around them. This brings reality
and attainability into focus.
And last, in the category of Resources sufficient funds to operate as a
collaborative group and a skilled convener both factors received high ratings as
success factors. Merrelyn Emery (personal communication, May 20, 1998) does
not believe that the first factor is relevant. She believes that the point of the search
is for people in action groups to find the financial resources they need; that is the
point. Indeed, the water quality search participants decided to levy a small
membership fee to begin to pay for operating costs of their new network. This
thesis interviews test this factor to determine if financial support is important in
the success of searches, as seen in Intervention factor E in Figure 2.1, some form
of follow up mechanism provides resources for action planning.
The issue of the skill of the convener is fuzzy when it comes to searches. The
conference manager does not convene the group but does manage the collaboration.
The sponsor is the convener in Mattessich and Monseys definition. The skills they
mention are organizing and interpersonal skills and a perception of fairness that
grants them legitimacy and respect. This factor is shared jointly by the sponsor and
the conference managers. This thesis interviews test for both of these as seen in
the sponsor characteristics factors shown in Table 2.1.
Though not specifically identified by Gray as success factors, her four
characteristics of the negotiated order paradigm might be considered as such:
It is possible for interest groups to reach consensus because the alternative
of no action is clearly worse for all concerned.
All parties, in addition to public officials, assume responsibility to search
for the collective good.
A wide variety of interests being included enhances the possibility of
reaching consensus on the public good.
The process of multi-lateral, versus a series of bilateral, stakeholder
interactions increases the chances of discovering mutually beneficial
In the water quality search, the sponsor (a government agency) knew that
years of debate over their proposed water quality plan would mean no action on a
critical issue, so they were willing to forego developing a proposed plan and turn it
over to the stakeholders. They convened a wide variety of stakeholders, the right
people, and it worked beyond their highest hopes.
In summary, search methods fit the success factors identified above. It
remains to be seen if the results from this thesis support this.
Theories of why people take action are rooted in Lewins seminal research
documenting the axiom that people implement what they help to create (Lewin,
1943). The organization development literature is filled with studies that support
active participation as an effective way to bring about change. The move toward
normative re-educative change models, which advocate direct participation, and
away from power-coercive models, is chronicled in the early organization
development literature (Bennis, Benne and Chin, 1969). Friedmans (1987)
advocacy for the connection of knowledge to action, fits this idea of active
The classic study that established the importance of active participation as a
way to get people to change their behavior was the so-called sweetbreads study
that Lewin (1943) conducted during WWII. In an effort to get housewives to
change the eating habits of their families in order to save better cuts of meat for the
fighting troops, two treatment groups were set up. The first group was lectured
about the importance of serving non-prime meat, such as organs and sweetbreads,
to their families. The second group was engaged in an active discussion and
problem solving about serving sweetbreads. Actual change in behavior was higher
for this second group compared to the first. Numerous other studies followed, all
supporting this original finding that people help implement what they help create
(Cartwright and Zander, 1968; Coch and French, 1978; Lewin, Lippit and White,
1939; Mosher, 1967).
The analysis by Benne (1976) of Lewins theory as it applies to re-education
also applies to the operation of searches. Lewin assumed that re-education must
affect people in three ways: modification of their cognitive-perceptual structure,
their values and their motoric patterns (behavioral and skill level). Lewin
believed, and Benne supports these beliefs based on his research and thinking, that
the cognitive-perceptual and value orientations were interrelated, and so must be
addressed together, an idea supported specifically by Friedman and Healey, as
explained above. Benne called for experimental inquiry, in which people could
examine their own data feelings, perceptions, commitment and behaviors in an
atmosphere of open exchange and feedback with members of a group as they share
their different responses to the same events the environment (or L2,2, in the
Emerys term). This is similar to the description that Asch (1952) gives for
dialogue and effective communication described above. Lewin further extended
his theory by asserting that change (re-education) will occur when people are
exposed to groups with norms that contrast with their own and with whom they
engage in this experimental inquiry. The group is an indispensable medium of
effective re-education because of the nature of human socialization; hence
perceptions and values will change when people are engaged in experimental
inquiry with others who are different from them. In searches, this is accomplished
by getting the right people in the room; in future search, it requires getting the
whole system in the room.
Cummings (1984), at the time of his writing, was an original thinker and
model builder for dealing with multi-stakeholder situations. He suggests some
actual organizational development practices to use with what he calls
transorganizational systems (TS) federated or coalitional structures whose
member organizations maintain their separate identities yet use either a formal or
informal structure of collaboration for joint decision making. This definition of
TSs as a network of organizations does not account for the individual as a
participant, but otherwise describes what searches hope to attain separate entities
that collaborate on some common goal. As with Emery, Friedman, Healey, and
Gray, Cummings too discusses the role of TSs in helping organizations cope with
environmental complexity and with the critical role that the socio-ecological
principle (design principle 2) plays in effectively organizing the TS.
As far as the organization development (OD) consultant is concerned
Cummings offers these challenges to the usual practice of planned change. TSs:
Are relatively under-bounded or under-organized (few formal
organizational characteristics such as structure, mission statements, roles,
and coordinating mechanisms.)
Have relationships among members that are loosely coupled and indirect
Have dispersed leadership and power among autonomous entities
Have sporadic commitment to joint task performance as membership
Given these conditions, he suggests that the OD consultants change strategy
should be 1) aimed at increasing shared norms and values, and 2) designing
structures, roles and technologies to create predictability and regularity. This is
done using a four-stage model that is comparable to the usual OD action research
model of entry, joint diagnosis, joint planning of interventions and assessment
(French and Bell, 1973). The TS models stages are:
1. Identification of the relevant system and its members (stakeholder analysis)
2. Convention of these stakeholders to start the linkage process
3. Organization of the system to regularize behavior
4. Evaluation of the organization and system against intended effects
Searches follow the first two steps. The planning group does a social map to
identify stakeholders and the conference itself is the convention phase. What has
been lacking in searches is item 3, above, the organization of the system that Emery
(1999, xxi-xxiii) has addressed with the addition of the participative design
workshop (PDW) to form the two-phase conference. (There are very few of these
done, to this researchers personal knowledge). Cummings offers a sophisticated
model to further help the OD consultant who works in the TS arena, which may be
helpful in the analysis of the data from this thesis.
At a more practical level, Morse (1997), using a case study to analyze
community change, identifies the characteristics that contribute to successful
community change. The ones relevant to this study are her findings that successful
Collaborative efforts that create new partnerships to address community-
A broader view is taken, including the larger context of the problem,
recognizing that the solution supercedes any one organizations ability to
address it and that including a broad set of stakeholders is critical
Communication among stakeholders about the collaborative effort and their
intended outcomes is critical for systemic change
Broader and deeper local leadership capacity
The first three are supported by the research done by Massettich and Monsey
and are a part of search practices. The idea of local leadership capacity building is
not as explicitly stated in the search literature as it could be. Merrelyn Emery
(personal communication, May 20, 1998) says that of course it is an outcome of
searches. This is called civic engagement in the model in Figure 2.1 and is tested
by the questionnaire designed for this thesis.
Search conferences are based on the theory base and practices for planned
change that are used by OD practitioners. Cummings suggests that practitioners
need to expand the practices they have used for organization change and look at the
TS as needing a different, though not incongruent, approach to planned change.
Citizen Participation and Direct Democracy
A fundamental idea behind searches is direct democracy design principle 2,
in Emery language which is distinguished from representative democracy. In
searches, the assembled people are the decision makers; they do not represent
anyone nor do they take ideas back for others to approve. The restoration of direct
democracy is one of the motivations behind open systems theory upon which
searches are based. A brief history follows of direct democracy and citizen
participation, civic engagement and social capital, and the changing role of the
public manager in a citizen involvement environment.
History of Direct Democracy and
Both Lobingier, rather superficially (1909), and Kweit and Kweit, going back
thousands of years (1981), trace the history of direct democracy. From its early
roots as folkmoots or popular assemblies in the Aryan culture, where the focus
was on warriors deciding about war, the framework for a popular legislature was
established. Greeks, Romans, Normans and Saxons took up the idea along with the
Puritans, who called it common assent, and brought it to America where it had been
practiced by Native Americans. The Mayflower Compact was a prototype of the
democratic process known as the social contract of the whole community. The
Puritans, according to de Tocqueville (1832), were as much a political movement
as a religious one because of the written formation of a covenant of the civil body
politik. The United States Constitution brought it to a formal end with the
institutionalization of representative government. It had begun to fade on its own,
however, because of the problem of scale it works best in small political units.
With the growth in population, the practical need to tend the farm and the
dispersion of the American population, it became acceptable to send representatives
to town meetings to deliberate and make decisions. And as people became more
literate, there was less need for face-to-face meetings to transmit information.
Kweit and Kweit, examining the broad patterns of direct democracy, call this
a participation crisis, this tension between American roots in the direct
democracy of the Mayflower Compact and the republican form of government
created in the Constitution. They identify three major waves in this crisis. The first
came during the Age of Jackson in which populism thrived and the spoils system
opened up the bureaucracy to citizens. The second occurred in the Progressive Era,
with another rise in populism and the beginning of the initiative and referendum
movement, detailed by Tallian (1977). Unlike the previous two waves, the third
wave mandated citizen participation. Such mandates could be found in 1914 and
1938 when farm groups were locally chosen to implement policy. It then bloomed
fully with the arrival of the War on Poverty in the 1960s and its mandate for
maximum feasible participation. This last wave created an expectation on the
part of citizens to be included in decision making even when it was not tied to
federal dollars that mandated such participation.
The third wave ushered in a fundamental conflict, citizen participation based
upon liberal democratic theory was happening within a republican, representative
structure of government. Pateman (1970) reconciles this conflict in part by relying
on John Stuart Mill and his observation that citizens need also to learn to govern
themselves and learn democracy by applying it at the local level, even as they vote
for representatives at the national level. Mills ideas speak to the issue of scale,
too, by recognizing that direct democracy probably cannot work in large and
complex societies. Emery (1993, 207-213) disagrees and has developed a system
of direct democracy that begins at the local level and rolls up to the national level.
Patemans reasoning is based in part on the belief that participation by
citizens is a matter of discussion, not legislation, which integrates the individual as
a conscious member of a greater community. These ideas echo those mentioned
above by Healey, Friedman, and Ackoff as a part of the new paradigm for strategic