The Search Conference: a compact and robust method for "getting outside of the box" and on to being globally innovative

(Based on the work of Fred and Merrelyn Emery and drawn from Global Innovation by Hamson and Holder. See Brief History of Search.)

The Search Conference process helps organizations break through limiting assumptions and creates an environment, or “structure” that facilitates innovative learning. The following three examples are just three ways one might use the search conference to support you r global innovation efforts:

Purpose and design of the search conference -- The search conference is designed to identify a desired direction or end for the organization and increase the effectiveness of strategic planning and its implementation.

The process goals for the search conference are:

Overall design of the Search Conference (you might also want to look at a in-a-nutshell description of a search conference)

The search conference resembles a funnel in its design. It begins with the widest possible perspective, then it narrows down to specific key actions, widening again as the group diffuses and implements its vision to the rest of the organizational community. It consists of seven distinct steps or parts:

1. Changes in the world important into the future

2. Trends and forces directly affecting our system

This first part of the conference consists of a series of tasks to learn what's happening in the global and more direct environment. This sheds light on how the organization is, or could be responding to environmental changes.

3. Common history of our system

Next the organization does an appreciative inquiry into the past, exploring its history and heritage, followed by an assessment on the current state of affairs.

4. Our current system: what to keep, throw–out, create

5. Desirable future of our system

Based on the shared information of the environment and organization itself, the next part of the conference puts people before the task of developing a vision of their organization’s most desirable future. The outcome is a series of agreed upon vision statements.

6. Action planning to identify goals, means to attain the desirable future

In the last two steps of the search conference, participants turn desirable vision statements into achievable goals by anticipating potential constraints and devising strategies to get around them.

7. Diffusion of the plan to the organization and implementing the plan

Finally, action plans and strategies for diffusion and implementation are developed.

Background and pre–steps to the search conference

The search conference goal is to assist the enterprise in creating strategies and action plans, which will enable it to attain and maintain a flexible and proactively adaptive relationship between itself and its environment.

Tasks of top management and the conference manager

The task of top management is to bring together 20 to 40 of those people who carry the strategic knowledge of their organization.

The conference manager’s task is to collaboratively design and manage the learning environment, the process, and the structure of the puzzle solving process. Conference managers will brief the senior manager about the process and the participants' role. Out of this discussion will emerge a workable design and an understanding of who ought to participate in the conference.

Interaction between the enterprise's leader and search conference managers identifies research and data collection needs. For example: interviews with critical customers and a full range of the enterprise's employees on their perceptions of the task environment are often conducted. In addition, plans/decisions are made for collecting all reports, statistics, customer input, employee insights, and information about the system as it really works and expert information relevant to your enterprise and its environment.

Search conference code of behavior and expectations

The choice of participants

The selection of participants is always critical but will vary depending on the type of organization. For example, in an organization with a national or global center and a number of regional and/or out of country field operations, one needs to consider either bringing in representatives who have knowledge, responsibility, and influence relevant to strategic planning and implementation. If the operation is very large and wide spread, then one might consider holding a series of search conferences in the field and then holding a final search that integrates and fine tunes those already held. (See community mapping)

4. The Search begins: changes in the world important into the future

Why focus on the external environment? Traditional strategic planning tends to assume stability and little change within the external environment's interacting systems -- which is less true today than ever before. The old: Big Three automakers in the US were so intent on and used to competing against each other, that they either failed to notice or take seriously the growing acceptance of Toyota and Nissan (then-Datsun) automobiles in the California market.

Documenting the external environment As a large group, everyone sits in a semi-circle facing two clean flip charts. It is time to analyze the external environment from the global as well as your industry or sector’s perspective. The question is, "What has happened in the last 3 to 5 years that is novel and significant?"

As items are mentioned people begin to write their comments: (Sample issues could include)

Defining a desirable future for the world in 2010 Next sub-groups work on desirable and probable futures for the world. The desirable world taps into the ideals of individual and helps to get people farther -- out of their corporate box -- to see how they and consumers are effected by the larger systems. The goals must still be but must be achievable by 2010 (five years out).

Their desirable future could include such goals as:

5. Trends and forces directly affecting our system

This is where the information and date usually collected for traditional strategic planning is brought in to view. The difference being that the group considers the information as a group, rather than as reports analyzed in isolation.

An IT firm's probable future might include items similar to those that emerged in the Motorola search during the mid-1990s:

6. The Search continues: Dialogue about "our" history as an organization

The purpose of the history dialogue also is to make sure there is a shared knowledge of where the system has come from and all the major formative phases or changes it has gone through so people are working from the same body of knowledge. This history session is about the organizational system — not about individuals, although individuals are emotionally involved in the history.

Remember your history. A circle is formed with the whole group present. Ask those who are the elders, the veterans of the organization (those who have been with the organization the longest, with the most experience) to speak up first and to tell their view of the company’s history. After they begin, others will add their voices. For the next hour or so, the stories people tell bring the group's history to life.

A timeline of formative events emerges. Capture key words on a timeline on flip chart paper. Oftentimes, events will seem to be linked with the different leaders over the last decade. The newest people often hear for the first time significant events in their organization’s past. Usually it is obvious that the organization’s veterans have faced significant obstacles over the past ten years of so.

Deeply significant learning usually occurs at this point and a sense of the whole is emerging. Telling all the events, their details and relations brings out the total meaning and rich context that lies behind the work the people do. As the timeline approaches the present, more members become involved in putting the story together and a complex web of interdependencies is woven through different experiences.

With both the future of the world and the organization’s past contexts in place, you are ready to build upon the history session. There should be sufficient trust in the room now to move into a thorough assessment of the organization’s current weaknesses and strengths.

The analysis capitalizes on all the dimensions of the system touched upon by the history session. A purely rational or business analysis loses the subtle cultural factors that give people their unique identity and spirit.

7. The Search continues: What to keep, jettison, and create?

As a large group, you explore three questions simultaneously:         

  1. What do we want to keep? For most groups, there is a lot to be proud of.
  2. What do we want to jettison (throw away)? They will choose to jettison a number of items.
  3. What do we need to create or invent? This flip chart will often fill quickly


8. The Search continues: Creating a desirable globally innovative future for ACME Inc. 2007

In a shifting and uncertain world, a well-defined desirable future is often expressed in 6 to 8 strategic goals. At the same time, you are working on making your organization as actively adaptive as possible, in relation to achieving those goals and in relation to changes that will occur in the external environment. An active adaptive organization has the ability to align their actions to goals, as well as modify, drop or add a particular goal as the environment changes.

Small group work... Form sub-groups to work on creating the desirable future of the operation in 2007. Each group must describe a desirable future in scenarios with no more than seven or eight points. These scenarios may include but are not limited to a definition of market, applications, new technologies, new products, new platforms, organizational structure, business size, et cetera. The groups work for several hours and then report out their scenarios to the whole group. Disagreement/differences will, of course, surface during this scenario reporting session. Create an agreed and disagreed list using the two questions that follow here to manage this part of the process:

1. Do you have any questions for clarification? As each group presents there are a number of terms and wording that are discussed to avoid confusion and make their meaning plainly evident. Once everyone is clear, you can go on.

2. Is there anything up there in that desirable future of your unit that you could not live with or are not prepared to make happen?

These two questions help rationalize, not resolve, conflict between groups so they can recognize and build common ground. If they failed to ask these questions the groups would focus on what was different in their perspectives rather than what is common or similar. Once such conflict is rationalized, the leadership group is ready and committed to act in concert toward creating an active, adaptive relationship between it and its environment.

Then begin focusing on the areas of agreement — and integrating the work of the subgroups Then, they produce the goals for the desirable organizational future in 2010 -- which are usually a good stretch.

Then look back at the disagreed list to see if any of the items are still relevant — to the goals of the agreed upon desirable future. Any that still remain may be constraints to reaching the desired future. Move those for discussion in the next step.

After integrating the work of four groups, all members should commit to that desirable future and say whether they are prepared to make it happen.

9. Action planning to identify goals, means to attain the desirable future

What are our constraints? In this session, the group identifies constraints to their desirable future and then develops strategies to overcome those constraints.

Constraints are dealt with close to the end of the search because they are difficult to deal with. Focusing on them before the "community" has experienced itself as confident and creative would be a major obstacle to their progress.

Some typical comments are: "This is hard. It's overwhelming. We want to go home. Can we ever do anything when we've got so much holding us back." A quick review of the desirable future is usually sufficient to get them moving again.

Brainstorming a list of potential constraints may be the first step. You may also consider using the drivers of innovation mentioned earlier in chapter two as a check list to determine what aspect of a service or product may have been overlooked.

Drivers of innovation check list:

  1. I want to have greater input into the services and products I buy. I want more input into how my community is run, I want great input my worklife.
  2. I want it my way!
  3. Low cost and high quality are no longer separate choices.
  4. What's new?
  5. Is it user friendly?
  6. Is it earth friendly?
  7. Is it people friendly?
  8. Is it beautiful or elegant?
  9. Can we trust you?

Another tool that might be used here is to anticipate "unintended consequence" both positive and negative. You may do this by noting on a flip chart the action or decision being made and then ask yourselves, in two or three rounds: "What might happen if we do this?" During each of these rounds, you should try to identify at least two positive, two negative consequences. Each of the potential consequences then might be rated for probability of actually happening using your best estimate -- plus or minus 10%, 25%, 50% or more. The minus or negative ratings will probably indicate that the constraint be dropped from consideration. However, when minus 25% or 50% occurs in a string of otherwise positive consequences, it may simply indicate an area worth looking at for another innovation or breakthrough


Goal: The new X-104 model will be first marketed in the Western Region.

a. Consequence or reaction of the market --positive --4 to 5 consequences from this --4 to 5 consequences from each of those.

b. Consequence or reaction of the market -- negative --4 to 5 consequences from this -- 4 to 5 consequences from each of those.

c. Consequence or reaction of the market -- positive --4 to 5 consequences from this -- 4 to 5 consequences from each of those.

d. Consequence or reaction of the market -- negative --4 to 5 consequences from this -- 4 to 5 consequences from each of those.

This step takes you several steps into the future and can uncover significant problems as well as unforeseen opportunities. For example, a rip roaring success may not have considered potential roadblocks in the organization’s ability to meet a higher than expected demand for product.

Douglas Aircraft (later McDonnell Douglas) was always a very innovative company, beginning with their DC-3 airplane that revolutionized commercial passenger service. It also had another reputation -- it could never quite keep up with orders from airlines around the world for its innovative airplanes. When the airline industry was deregulated in the U.S., the demand for product substantially increased. Douglas was unable to respond and was taken over by McDonnell. McDonnell could not cure the problem and they eventually merged with Boeing.

During the Motorola search conference, they produced the following list of constraints:

1. External constraints included:

2. Internal constraints included:

Discussing and selecting strategies to overcome constraints. Next, individuals choose one of the top four constraints to work on in small groups. In this new formation, they develop indirect strategies to address that constraint.

Indirect strategies based on The Art of War by Sun Tzu, which was compiled over 2000 years ago are a very effective approach to reaching objectives in a turbulent, uncertain environment. Sun Tzu's strategies do not confront the constraint head on; rather, they encircle, get around, go under, or somehow piggyback on them to reach our objectives. The following are a few Art of War strategies:

  1. Concentration as product of diversity

broad-front approach

not putting all your eggs in the one basket

  1. Effort directed towards points of least resistance and most future potential (multiplier effect). Capture the weakest link
  2. When attacked, pull out. Learning doesn't disappear (good ideas stay in people’s heads)
  3. Go around and encapsulate the resistance
  4. Encircle from within Victory and defeat are relative, depending on context. Needs constant re–evaluation of the field while moving within it. May have to shift effort or sacrifice some efforts, re-assess your priorities

Lateral Thinking, as developed by Edward de Bono (discussed in chapter eight) might  also be used to create means/strategies to overcome constraints.

Overcoming potential limits arising from a competitor's strategy. Some of the suggestions in the Motorola search conference for overcoming strategies of competitors were:

Because constraints have been put in the positive, groups often, find their work here has provided major strategies for moving toward their desirable future.

Check point: is the desirable future still desirable and achievable? Now give the group an opportunity to adjust their desirable future in light of all the constraints that have been worked through.

10. Action planning, diffusion of the plan to the organization and implementing the plan

This is the final morning. Participants self-select to participate in self-managing task forces each of which then develop action plans (strategies and tactics) to achieve their goals. They must agree that no one is leaving until they figure out:

They accept that they are on their own, fully responsible and that collaboration is now an expected behavior for successful planning.

Rarely in the implementation phase do we deal with a simple linear process. There may well be points at which participants realize:

If and when any of the groups experience such needs or difficulties in carrying out their tasks and strategies, they can now use their experience with the search conference method to reconvene as a small group or with the other groups, if necessary to adjust plans, strategy or direction.

A final caution:

Maintain a self-managing structure. If you should revert to a committee structure with rules of debate, et cetera, you will have created a mini-bureaucracy with predictable consequences:

Take me back to the index, Ned!

Copyright, Ned Hamson 2005