What is a Search Conference?

by Steve Cabana

A Search Conference's goal is to produce an adaptive relationship between your organization and it's uncertain, changing environment. It's designed to identify a desired endpoint and increase the effectiveness of strategic planning by giving those actually affected by change more control over their purposes and directions.

A Search Conference is a structured participatory process where groups of concerned and active individuals scan through turbulent environments for:

  1. A desired outcome for themselves and
  2. Generate a strategy for achieving it.

The process emphasizes collaborative, experiential learning and community planning - 'jigsaw' puzzle solving. This is achieved through the interaction of the participants who, drawn from a relevant domain, identify, evaluate, and adapt to trends in their environment. The process allows for the creation of shared visions and initiates the deployment of those visions by creating self-managing teams responsible for working the specifics of how to make the plan happen.

How does it work?

A Search Conference's goal is to produce an adaptive relationship between your organization and it's uncertain, changing environment. It is designed to identify a desired endpoint and increase the effectiveness of strategic planning by giving the people - those actually affected by change - more control over their long term purposes and directions.

In a search twenty to fifty people puzzle through confusion, uncertainty and mixed signals from the environment to identify a set of key business drivers/strategic initiatives. Self selected implementation teams form around each strategic initiative (three to seven in total) and plan how they will overcome obstacles and involve other organization members to achieve the plan.

Why does a Search Conference work?

The Search Conference is designed for planning in rapidly changing environments. A search operates on a specific set of empowering assumptions.

In a search people act as if...

There are many paths to business success - We assume people can be responsibly creative to produce a desirable set of goals and be actively adaptive to achieve their endpoints with flexible behavior.

Cooperation requires processes for managing conflict - When people sort out what is agreed to/not agreed to - and then integrate their work across groups they become one community that will now be able to cooperate to bring those plans into action.

They are empowered - Those responsible for different aspects of the business plan for and have the necessary authority to implement those plans.

They are actively adaptive - People experience that success comes from sensing trends and initiating change by exploring all possibilities since the achievement of specific endpoints is uncertain.

Discontinuities are to be expected and searched for - The environment (industry and global) can shift and change at any moment.

Constant vigilance is necessary - Assumptions of how to be successful in our business must be continuously surfaced, updated and built into our internal systems to conform with the external reality.

When an organization is not aligned with or ignores it's environment unhappy customers, decreased productivity, quality and commitment to work along with apathy and cynicism can result.

What is required of an executive who chooses a search over other planning methods?

He or she needs to believe or accept that:

  1. The ability to plan and respond to uncertainty can be built into a core group of people.
  2. Commitment is earned through participatory strategic planning combined with responsibility for implementation of plans.
  3. The firm is a human community. A community which can grow and expand as people work together to achieve their desired future.
  4. Determined and inspired people can control their own performance. That when people's ideals are captured and brought to life in their plans for the future their energy, commitment and initiative will be forthcoming.
  5. People can identify and creatively synthesize emerging trends into a desirable future. They can carry forward the best of the past while overcoming the obstacles to the future they wish to achieve.
  6. Expert analytical planning techniques are not enough to chart the future today. When expert information is combined with the knowledge of people (who interact with customers, suppliers, government officials, strategic partners, competitors, other parts of the business) the most insightful and achievable plans are the result.

Who has used it and what was the outcome?

Motorola - A business unit which designs and produces the newest, smallest semi-conductors for the wireless equipment business used the method to hold a world-wide strategic planning event in Tokyo. The result: Key programs were established to fill technology voids, markets were expanded, a systems solution approach to customers was begun and the design of new products was shifted to the regions instead of being centrally located.

Microsoft - Microsoft used the method to facilitate new product development conducting four back to back Search Conference's which culminated in a meeting for integrating ideas, strategies and action plans. This resulted in a comprehensive strategy for each of the product lines within the division.

Exxon Chemical - Exxon sponsored a Search Conference on the future of customer-supplier relationships in the tire industry in 2010 - inviting their major customer, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, to participate in creating a strategic partnership.

Hewlett Packard -One plant used the Search to organize work so the people would be able to see themselves as owners. In another HP facility people were at the door of failure, the plant might be shut down. The SC was used to bring people together, to make hard choices for survival which entailed dropping four product lines and the jobs associated with them in order to secure a meaningful future for the business.

Ford Electronics -A Canadian facility conducted a search in 1982 to determine how to survive in their marketplace. The result was a mindset shift. Rather than making parts for Ford they determined to become a learning lab for new technology and management practices that could be exported to other Ford facilities. That led to redesign of the facility, implementation of TQM, winning a prestigious quality award and expansion of the plant from 900 to 1800 people.

Levi Strauss - Levi Strauss in Canada was recently featured on CNBC for their innovative management practices. Eight years ago they outlined the future they now have in place in a Search Conference. The critical shift in mindset was to form a parnership with the union and go forward together to create the future.

Automatic Data Processing -One division confronted major changes in it's business environment. It used a search to reposition itself and rewrite the business strategy. Action plans formed around a new marketing focus, a redefinition of pricing and support, a commitment to new product development, together with training and implementation of productivity tools.

Xerox -A Customer Business Unit identified these key business drivers in a Search Conference: We will have fully empowered employees who are accountable and have incentives to meet their customers' requirements with the only boundary being ethical behavior. We will have an organizational design based on cross-functional work groups to increase profits by 15%, and revenue growth by 20% per year. Bottoms-up planning will be used with all employees and managers as a means for continuous learning and improvement. The CBU will be market driven and recognized as the vendor of choice. Mastery of technology tools that fully support our business needs will exist throughout the organization. Action teams are working to overcome obstacles and make these initiatives happen.