SWIM: Why a Future Search Conference

In the life of any successful undertaking, there is a transition from discussion and exploration to planning and action. When we don't make that transition, enthusiasm wanes and key people begin to drift off. There are lots of planning tools and approaches, but Future Search may be the best for moving toward an action-focused phase. SWIM appears to be at that inflection point, and the conference builds directly on the work that has already been done.

Why Future Search? And why is Future Search seen as such a powerful tool for planning and shared/committed action in addressing difficult problems? Here are the key features and the flow of the Future Search Conference:

  • Integration of time and groups: Think of Future Search as a funnel. It starts with a review of the recent past that gives every participant a shared history and also a clear understanding of trends and events affecting their group/organization and the communities that are being served. In this way, it builds on the work that has already been done, but organizes it in clear themes and priorities.
  • Cohesion, Ownership, Emotional Commitment: In addition to its substantive strategic goals, Future Search is designed to build trust and emotional commitment to a set of shared goals and the actions required to achieve them. It is driven by a basic belief that "this makes sense" isn't enough, that all of the stakeholders will walk away with a sustainable emotional commitment to the goals that are set.
  • Values and Relationships: After reviewing the past, we proceed to a review of the present. It focuses on two things, driven by these questions:
    • If we look at everything that we - as a community - are doing, what are we most proud of and want to sustain and enhance? What are we "sorry about," and want to change?
    • What are the most important relationships that will drive this initiative to success? And what do we want these relationships to be 2-3 years from now?
  • Vision: By this time, participants are beginning to wonder: when are we going to talk about problems? Answer: not yet. This is the "Future Search" portion of the conference. Again, working in groups, participants define an optimal vision for SWIM and its impact. This vision is not "soft and fuzzy" but clear and operational, and assumes that all resource, political, organizational and any other issues/problems have been surmounted. Groups write sections/chapters for the SWIM Annual Report for the Year 2021. In it, they describe in clear operational terms what has been accomplished in the three years beginning in January, 2019.
  • Issues and an Action Agenda: The funnel narrows. This is the conference's final activity. After the optimal visions are reported, participants answer a simple question: What are the problems/impediments to achieving this vision? Three steps:
    • Participants make a "laundry list" of problems/issues. Anything that anyone says is a problem is captured?
    • Participants then rank all of the items in order of importance and immediacy, producing the Action Agenda
    • As final steps, the action agenda is refined, and a commitment is made by a core group to convert it into action plans with time-targeted, measurable and achievable goals and objectives.
  • Some other features of Future Search: Future Search is based on the assumption that all needed knowledge and expertise is in the room. There are no "outside experts." The quality of the questions drives the process. There are no speeches, only group presentations of results and themes. Everyone participates and votes as an equal.