Future Search The Method

Future Search Comes to Russia
By Jan Secor, Marina Tyasto and Elena Marchuk, FSN members.

After nearly three years of planning, future search came to Russia with the dawn of the new millennium. As you will see, the road was bumpy and sometimes twisted, but we have reached our first milestone-the introduction of future search to Russia. Perhaps for the first time in their history, ordinary Russians have the opportunity to create their own futures.

We believe future search is an important tool that will encourage broad-based participation in formulating the new Russia. It provides a technology in which people can define the future for themselves, find common ground with others and join together to realize their joint vision.

The journey to bring future search to Russia began in 1994 when Jan Secor from Seattle WA, USA, participated in future search facilitator training with Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff in California. Three years later, in the fall of '97, Marina Tyasto from Novosibirsk, Russia visited Jan in Seattle. A set of circumstances during that visit brought Marina and Jan to the east coast and with a few days to fill, Jan emailed Marv and Sandra asking, "How would you like to meet my friend from Siberia and talk about introducing future search to Russia?" During that visit, Jan and Marina got their first glimmer that dream could become real, but, of course, it involved getting clients on board.

In May, 1999, we got funding from the University of Maryland to bring a potential client from Siberia to the US to discuss the future search method with Marv and Sandra. Michael Pannwitz, a Future Search Network member visiting the US from Berlin, joined the meeting. Michael, who was sponsoring a future search training with Marv and Sandra in September, 1999, made it possible for Marina Tyasto and Elena March from Novosibirsk, Vasily Kozlov and Alexander Tsarkov from Nizhny Novgorod and Tatiana Brook from Irkutsk to attend the September training.

At the same time, Jan was awarded a Fulbright fellowship that enabled her to come to Novosibirsk for the 1999-2000 academic year. As an aside, when she left the States, she carried so many boxes of markers, sticky dots and other future search supplies that in order to get the supplies on the train from Moscow to Novosibirsk, Marina and Jan had to get a ticket for an extra bunk.

Our first disappointment came when a client, the Siberian Academy for Public Administration (SAPA) gave us the go-ahead for the future search, but didn't have enough money. So the first conference that was first scheduled for October, then November, had to be postponed.

Finally, Two Future Searches

Finally, in February 2000, two future searches were held in the same week in Nizhny Novgorod, facilitated by Marina and Elena. In March, they facilitated the SAPA conference in Novosibirsk and then in October, facilitated a fourth. Tatiana may also have a future search on environmental issues that she has been planning for the Irkutsk region.

Future search topics were quite varied. In Nizhny Novgorod, participants looked at the future of business education in 2010 and at the future of a historic arsenal that may be developed as a museum ("The Arsenal of Art and Technique"). In Novosibirsk, participants looked at the future of leadership and leadership development in Siberia. The future search in October had the title, "The Future of Women in Siberia: Issues and Strategies." Many other future searches have been proposed, including the future of economic development in the city of Novosibirsk; the future of a small employee recruitment and training firm and the future of Rotary International in Siberia and the Russian Far East. At this stage in Russia's transition to democracy and a market economy, the future search method is appropriate for tackling a great many of the complex problems facing communities, industries and institutions.

Some Contraindications!

However, promoting the future search model in Russian is inhibited not only by economic conditions where money for any kind of conference hard to come by, but also by a general lack of experience with participatory methods. Past experience has left most Russians believing that their voice isn't very important in shaping their future. They tend to be fatalistic and focused on immediate survival strategies. Uncertainty makes planning for the future seem futile.

In contract, we believe it is crucial to hear the voice of everyone, and for everyone to participate in defining the future together. We don't think one can come along after the future search conference asking, "What did you decide?" or "Show me your results." When people don't participate in the process, the project doesn't involve them and they haven't identified others who share their perspective, so they aren't committed to implementation. It isn't their future. We think that future search will need to help Russians learn to value the process as much as the results.

In addition, most conferences in Russia are paid by grants from international foundations or government agencies. These sponsors want to know the outcomes in advance, and they expect to see well-known speakers on the program. Sending a diverse group of people into the woods for three days of strategic planning may seem a bit frivolous to them. Also, both sponsors and clients are used to receiving a detailed plan developed by 'the experts' that they can criticize. Asking for input from "outsiders" seems risky and unnecessary.

Resistance to the future search process centers on issues of inclusion, simplicity, newness and process. In Russia, there is a strong tendency to want to talk only to those we know, those who share the same rank, those of the same profession, etc. We have been told by one group that Russian scientists are too intellectual to use such simple methods and by another that the process is for stupid, uncreative people, not for Russian artists. We reminded both groups that the methods are simple but not easy.

In addition, using unfamiliar Western methods is both intriguing and threatening. We've heard "It won't work in Russia" more times than we would have liked. Thus, to promote future search we are working to create Russian precedents and samples, books, articles in Russian, brochures and maybe a video, also in Russian.

We are even considering dropping the word "conference" or finding an alternative, because the format does not fit the Russian model of a conference. Russians come to a conference to listen to presentations by noted experts. Or they want to talk to one or two old friends. Ort they want to get away to relax and drink. They are curious about this new method, but not committed to actually working for three days. Or maybe they want to be on the list because it is prestigious, but don't actually want to attend. Other things suddenly become more important. We suspect that there is a fear of showing their real selves to others, so they seek shelter by preferring to observe and criticize.

More Difficulties

There also seems to be difficulty understanding that the results of a future search are in the relationships formed and the individual and group learning that takes place; that the results are in the process, not in the words left on the walls at the end of three days. For example, one senior administrator who had agreed to participate fully chose instead to drop in for a few minutes now and then to check up on how the conference is going.

Afterward he was quite upset that so little had been accomplished in three days. Apparently, he expected to be presented with several pages of detailed plans for his consideration.. Another participant insisted that the time had been wasted because the results were the same as what had been written in the conference proposal. Fortunately, other participants quickly pointed out that two people had written the conference proposal and now 36 people were ready to sign on in full agreement.

There were problems working with the organizers of all three conferences. None of them had an effective steering committee. Conference facilitators were unable to travel to Nizhny Novgorod to meet the organizers before the conferences, so planning had to be done by e-mail. In Novosibirsk, despite months of planning, the conference date was changed only a few days before, and the room to be used was still being painted the day before. In each of the conferences there were last-minute changes in stakeholder groups and participants.

It also turned out to be a mistake to assume that the organizers or sponsors were supporters of the future search method. In one case, one of the conference managers was openly hostile to the method. In another case, the sponsor, who insisted on changing the conference date so he could attend, stayed for about an hour then left. He was discovered later watching TV in his office.

Certainly it was not possible to meet the full list of conditons for success in any of the conferences. Two of them were done almost entirely biz platena (without money), so lacked supplies and food. In one case the facilitators were not paid, despite the promise of payment. In Nizhny, Novgorod, the facilitators arrived that day before the conference to find that no materials had been printed, stakeholders groups had not been identified, the room was different from what was needed, and no one was sure there was any money for supplies. At this point Marina and Elena learned to overcome panic, enlist the aid of the conference participants and trust that they organizers knew what they were doing.

And More!

Traditionally, Russian conferences and classes have been held lecture style, so in most rooms chairs are bolted to the floor, and large rooms are constructed theater style. Just finding a room large enough for 64 people, with movable tables and chairs, is a real challenge. Forget round tables. They don't exist. At best they are square, or two can be put together to make something more or less square. Walls are rarely smooth. They are often covered with fabric or latticework, or very roughly textured and decorated with stripes in the concrete. Foamcore board does not exist; plywood and room dividers are very rare. There are no flipcharts or flipchart stands. Flipchart paper may be purches one sheet at a time or in packages of 100-300 sheets. These sheets must be taped together for the mind-map and timelines. No one has even heard of "sticky dots" but participants love them. They also pocketed the orange and light green markers which you can't buy here. (There may be a market opportunity here for somebody.)

When you have solved these problems, then you discover that the canteen won't bring coffee down because the room is too far away. Or there is no place at all to eat in the building so everyone will have to go out. Working meals are usually not an option, for all sorts of logistical and traditional reasons.

Despite all their experience listening to lectures and presentations, Russians, like the rest of us, have trouble really listening to one another. This problem is intensified by a tendency to talk to a neighbor whenever someone is speaking to the large group. However, one participant reported having a major personal breakthrough during the conference when she discovered that, "If we don't know how to listen to each other, we can't hear the needs of our clients." For us, this kind of learning is what future search is all about.

Interestingly, students and other young participants developed quickly during the conferences. Often they moved from being quite reticent among their elders to assuming leadership roles. Actually, not only the young changed. Some of those most resistant to the process, if they stayed to participate, ended up defending the process.

All the logistical difficulties and participant hostility left the facilitators riding an emotional roller coaster (just like the participants), but they learned to adapt, to be flexible and to go with the flow. In one case that meant turning the conference over to one of the hostile participants who wanted to change the process - to "quite doing these stupid exercises and get down to the business they cam to do." Interestingly, the result was a hybrid on future search, but common ground was finally reached and everyone was more or less satisfied in the end.

Will We Give Up? Never!

Are we discouraged? Maybe a little. Will we give up? Never! Russians are some of the most persistent people in the world. They seem to thrive on climbing over barriers. There are so many topics during this transition period that are appropriate for the future search that we are reasonably certain we will be doing many more future searches. (Besides we still have over 7,000 sticky dots in eight colors.)

The October conference in Novosibirsk involved women from three other cities and we hope they will want to sponsor future searches in their cities. We are also learning about other methods of helping our clients manage large-scale change, to increase our repertoire.

We feel we have been successful. We have managed to provide four conferences. The participants are learning to take responsibility for their future. They are learning to listen to and hear one another. Those who stayed sensed that something changed in a room filled with strangers. They felt the group coming together while individuals maintained their differences.

The group was quite different at the end of the future search. No one could imagine at the beginning that this diverse group, differing in age, background and professions, could ever come together-defining common goals and developing a project plan to implement the goals. But this is what happened in each of the meetings. One observer, who attended only part of the opening session and the closing session of the conference in Novosibirsk, said almost sadly that she could feel the difference in the room. We think she wished she had stayed. Perhaps next time she will.

In conclusion, we offer the following suggestions for other future search facilitators:

  • Do not become attached to the image you have in your head before the future search starts.
  • Be creative and have fun.
  • Be open for changes, remembering that the future search belongs to the participants.
  • Use any opportunities that present themselves to achieve the goal.
  • Learn to keep silent.
  • Don't try to solve all of the problems that arise.
  • Trust the universe and go with the flow.

We also express our deep gratitude to Sandra Janoff, Marvin Weisbord and other future search facilitators who have been willing to respond to our questions and open their hearts and homes to us.






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