Future search revisited

Yesterday I was at day one of a two-day off- site with around 200 people participating in a form of Future Search conference.Future Search is a planning meeting that "helps people transform their capability for action very quickly." In this case we were looking at four knotty problems to be tackled with three outcomes

  • A depicted vision, strategic roadmap and high-level project plan with established deadlines for each project.
  • A thrust for immediate implementation of project plans
  • A healthier team, networks, and alignment

First came three whole group sessions giving information from survey data gathered in relation to the four problems, an outline of the approach to the event, and a visioning session (lots of pictures, glue, raffia, feathers, party glitters,etc) that was introduced by an entertaining clip from 'Project Runway', Episode 11 where designers:

meet at a store called Party Glitters where they select all of the materials for their next outfit. Tim [Gunn] says that this unconventional challenge will push the boundaries of their abilities to innovate. He also warns them that the judges don't like materials that correspond to fabric, so they should step away from the tablecloths. With $100 and 30 minutes to shop, the designers are set loose.

These sorts of 'visioning' sessions can be tricky to pull off. Some people hate them and don't want to get involved in playing with paper, lego, origami, eggs and string, or whatever. Others dive right in and enjoy every moment of adding bells and balloons to their visions of what they will achieve in the next year. In this case we had both groups of people in the room but it worked well as the people who didn't want to participate in constructing the artwork talked to each other – often meeting face to face people they'd emailed or spoken to over the phone – and were delighted to meet in person.

During these input session two new (to me) pieces of software were introduced. First a very effective BlackBerry (other Smartphone) polling system from Poll Everywhere where people can text their response to poll questions and see an instant poll update on PowerPoint as people vote. Second a web based presentation software Prezi described as "insanely great" with zoom in and out features etc.

Then came the knotty problem tackling people chose which of the four problems they wanted to tackle and were led (or rather not led) through the process by subject matter experts (SME) who'd been briefed with the following:

"The goal of the breakout track strategy activities is to "pull" information from participants rather than "push" information out to them. Most conferences "push" information. We have all been to the dreadful 100+ slides death by PowerPoint presentations. Too many slide presentations in business, unfortunately, are "push" experience, with presenters hurrying through dense content and the audience falling asleep. A "pull" in a meeting context is something that happens that supports people moving in the direction they are going naturally. It gives people permission to build upon each other's ideas and collectively own the final solution. "Pull" creates participation. As a subject matter expert you need to facilitate the "pull" of information. People feel pulled by:

• Open Questions
• Simple Images
• Moving experts to the background
• Blank paper and blank spaces on displays
• Hand drawn charts
Lots of open ended questions
• Uncertainty
• Flexibility in the agenda"

SMEs were each given a very helpful and detailed guide on how to work with the groups with three parts to each timed section of the session. As follows:

The session element e.g. Split into subgroups

The purpose and tactical process description e.g. Sub-divide a large track group of ~35 to smaller groups of ~11. Once everyone is gathered in breakout room, split off into 3 subgroups. Randomness is key. Have the track group count off by 3. All the 1's create a group, the 2's another and the 3's another.

Facilitation guidance and content guidance e.g. The goal is to mix skills and provide people an opportunity to build off each other's skills especially if they don't usually have an opportunity to work with each other. Once groups are formed, reinforce the fact that the "pitch PPT deck" is only a starting tool and not a template/form. Teams are encouraged to innovate, adopt and reformat as necessary to convey their message in a creative manner. They can add/delete/reformat slides if so desired.

So far so good: the next task is to consolidate the work and presenting each problem with proposed approach and schedule for addressing back to the whole group. If this all works the next challenge is to make sure the problems are actually addressed by committing resources to them. If that happens the off-site will have been a success. But if, back in the workplace, the day to day grind overwhelms the excitement of visioning then the glitter, the snazzy software, the good intentions, and the goodwill, may be seen as having been for naught whether or not there have been other beneficial but not registered consequences.