Future Search The Method

The Buzz About Berrett-Koehler's FS Conference
By Robin Donovan, Senior e-commerce and promotion manager, Berrett-Koehler Publishers

San Francisco, CA, USA, April, 2000: Judging by the buzz around the offices, Berrett-Koehler's future search held in San Francisco, April 2-4, 2000 was a resounding success

The future search brought together employees, suppliers, customers, authors, distributors, e-commerce partners, investors, and other BK stakeholders. All were gathered to envision Berrett-Koehler's desired future over the next five years and plan together how to achieve it.

Over the course of two-and-a-half days, the 63 participants examined our past and present, created visions of the future that participants wanted to work toward, determined specific action plans to turn those future visions into reality, and began taking actions on the spot (such as creating partnerships) to carry out those plans.

"Because I have done so many future searches," says Dick Axelrod, author of Terms of Engagement. "I was not surprised by the power of the process, but it did reaffirm my belief in the ability of the process to work in a variety of settings and circumstances. I was impressed by the power of a company that is true to its values to make people want to be part of that system and offer ideas and services that hopefully will lead to the organization's growth and development."

In addition to being a powerful tool for strategic planning, the future search was an extraordinary venue for forming and deepening relationships among BK's stakeholder. "I got more done in those two-and-a-half days than could have been done in five years of phone calls," said BK general manager Gloria Valoris about her experience. Another dimension of the future search was emphasized by BK customer service manager Gail Caldwell, who called it "the most educational experience I've had in a two-and-a-half-day period."

Although the focus was on Berrett-Koehler's future, many of the almost 50 participating outside stakeholders reported that they gained a great deal of value for their own work and organizations. For example, Joel Suzuki, president of an innovative video firm remarked, "I cannot tell you how important the future search was to Star Thrower Distribution and our own future. During it, I often found myself rethinking our situation and how we have dealt with issues of creating infrastructure or clearly defining who our customers are in the broader sense of the word."

In his opening comments, BK president and publisher Steve Piersanti set forth a number of questions he hoped the group would address:

  • What business are we in and should we be in?
  • What should BK's mission be?
  • What should be our strategies for achieving our mission?
  • What organizational changes ae needed to carry out our strategies?
  • How can we accomplish our goals without burning out our staff or partners?
  • How can we make BK more profitable and financially sustainable?
  • What should the ownership/governance structure of BK be?
  • How can we raise more capital for BK?

Participants joined together in small groups to grapple with these questions. We reviewed our common and individual pasts, identified and examined major current trends in the world and the publishing industry, and talked about what we are proud of as well as things we regret in relation to Berrett-Koehler. Then we looked to the future to create a picture of where we want to be five years from now.

One of the main common visions that emerged was a two-fold general strategic direction for Berrett-Koehler;

  1. keeping the company's focus on its core competence of developing intellectual content, and
  2. disseminating that content through many different media in print, electronic, video, and audio formats-with most of this dissemination being done through strategic alliances and partnerships with numerous other organizations in book distribution, e-business, corporate training and other fields.

This vision will require the company to create all of its intellectual content in electronic forms that can be easily converted into a variety of media, to develop new structures and systems for forming strategic alliances and partnerships and to aggressively pursue such alliances and partnerships by deepening existing relationships with its stakeholders and establishing relationships with a wide range of other organizations.

A variety of other important themes also emerged in picturing BK's future: greatly increasing the worldwide distribution of BK publications (with the strategic alliances described above as a key to that expansion); deepening our partnering with authors for mutual benefit; strengthening BK's connections to, and focus on, its customers; making the company substantially more profitable and establishing a better capital base of the company; implementing many advances in the company's operational systems; making changes in BK's organizational structure to improve efficiency and performance; and addressing compensation, workload, and other issues concerning the well-being of the BK staff members.

Finally, we came together in self-selected groups to create and commit to action plans to achieve those common visions. There was a great deal of energy in developing action plans, communicating them, and getting started right there on implementing them. Among the highlights were:

Many actions to form strategic alliances and partnerships, including creating a new position within Berrett-Koehler to take the leadership in this area.

Agreements by some of the e-business representatives present to collaborate with BK to adapt BK content for use on the Web.

The creation of a "Resource Panel" of future search participants who are experts in a wide range of fields-from electronic publishing to corporate sales to project management-who offered to work with BK staff, on a volunteer, as-needed basis, to help carry out the plans.

The creation of an author-to-author mentoring program by which experienced authors will show inexperienced authors the publishing ropes-from editorial development through marketing and promotion.

"What was the most powerful abou the future search experience for me," says Debbe Kennedy, author of Diversity Breakthrough! Action Series, "was the daring move out beyond the comfort zone of trendy ideas. During on eof the sessions, I found myself with a diverse group of different sorts and types. Within a few minutes, we were truly down in the trenches crawling around together -and amidst the battle of ideas emerged two real breakthroughs for Bk's strategic direction. The future? The promise is there. The creation of it rests with all of us.


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