Sandra Janoff: Future Search - Getting the Whole System in the Room to Build a Common Ground Agenda

Dear Subscribers,

In the last week, increased violence and tension seems ubiquitous, ignited by the presence of Donald Trump. Things are heating up between the United States and Iran, the U.S. and China, Australia, Mexico, etc.  There are anarchists organizing in my country for violent action against the new president. 

It's been hard to find my voice in the midst of the chaos. What exactly do I want to say?  How can I talk about building common ground when I also want to protest against Trump?  Where does The Peacebuilding Podcast: Bridging the Divide fit? Many listeners and friends have reassured me that the niche of this podcast is perhaps more important now than ever.  We need to "bridge the divide", we need to build common ground, we need dialogue and  "activism of the skin" as one friend put it. And we need to create new structures and ways of doing things -- not the same polarized conversations.  

I know I regularly repeat the quotes that capture the essence of the niche I am trying to fill but here they are again: "The best way to predict the future is to create it." (Management Consultant, Pete Drucker).  "Don't fight against the existing reality. Create a new reality that makes the existing reality obsolete." (Systems Theorist,  Buckminster Fuller). And a new one I just came across, "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." (Journalist Scoop Nisker).

I was heartened the other day when a listener reached out to me.  She is in college, about to graduate, and has listened to every episode of the podcast. She is bright, articulate and looking for inspiration and guidance on how to create a "new story" on the planet.  I have invited her to do a summary episode of what she has learned from the podcast. I am excited!  I also loved hearing from a listener in Afghanistan who was inspired by Episode 20, Elvira Maria Restrepo, A Web App for Building Peace in Colombia.

So, let me turn to the latest guest on the show. Sandra Janoff is really in a class by herself. No one that I know of has so systematically created a design for building common ground in a multi-stakeholder group than Sandra and her now retired partner, Marv Weisbord.
The Future Search process does not portend to be a conflict resolution tool, or a peacebuilding one for that matter, but it is both nonetheless.
In this episode of The Peacebuilding Podcast: Bridging the Divide, Sandra talks about the Future Search process and tells stories about its application in a community of indigenous Hawaiins, for the Children of Southern Sudan and more.
Sandra co-developed the Future Search methodology which is a non-traditional way of doing strategic planning because it brings stakeholders together in a setting where there is a great deal of dialogue, and the opportunity to discover a shared vision and action agenda together.
Janoff also directs the Future Search Network where Future Search principles are applied in communities around the world for whatever people can afford. The Future Search principles include:

  1. Getting the whole system in the room
  2. Looking at “the whole elephant” together
  3. Focusing on the future and common ground as opposed to conflicts and problems, and
  4. Allowing the group to take responsibility.

As Janoff says, her focus has always been on structure change, not behavior change.  She and Marv are probably some of the first to make this important point to systems change – that getting the structures, conditions, principles right for whatever group you are working with – whether a team, family, department or whole system, is the best way to create sustainable change.
Sandra and her partner Marv have created an important legacy about how common ground can be built in spite of polarization. Both are Lifetime Achievement Award winners from the Organization Development Network. Many of the Future Searches they themselves have run around the world, or inspired, continue to make positive ripples sometimes decades after the meeting itself was convened.
As I always invite on The Peacebuilding Podcast, Sandra shares some of the “seeds” that were planted in her that inspired the work she does today  -- a family setting where she often had to play the role of informal mediator. She also talks about some of her early professional years that led to her insights about the need for structural change.
This episode is replete with insight and quotable moments.  To name a few that are especially relevant for these times:

“In so many places, people are building communities that are sustainable.  Under the right conditions, people can build a bright future.” 
“We are living under conditions of non-stop change and increasing diversity. So we must do something different – we can’t repeat old patterns and believe that things will change. People only change if they do something they haven’t done before.”
“We need new conversations and new ways of coming together.”
“When we make the circle bigger, things get better. “

Tune in now to this bright, wise soul and learn some important ways and ideas to take this planet higher. 

Listen here.


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