Why involve ‘strangers’ in strategic planning?

Today I read a challenging question on the email forum of the Future Search Network. A client asked for a Future Search conference for strategic planning for the organisation, an Institute in the health care sector. The Institute’s influential members (the board and the Strategic Planning Committee)  do not want to involve ‘outside stakeholders’. They seem to have great  anxiety about “exposing dirty laundry” or express the belief that “outside stakeholders” have nothing to add to the conversation except  their “opinions”. What should the consultant do?

A very real question to me.  My clients often respond to my proposal to invite relevant external stakeholders with: let’s start the change process first with only internal stakeholders. This raises two questions: what is ‘internal’ in a whole system approach, and why should you involve ‘outside’ stakeholders in strategic planning? Marvin Weisbord, one of the founders of Future Search and author of the bestseller Productive Workplaces, came up with a very wise answer. It made me realise that it is not about the Future Search method but about the underlying philosophy, why ‘whole system in the room’ works, when it is worth the effort,  and that Future Search concerns something completely different from retreats or teambuilding. I would like to share his answer with you in this post.

Marvin Weisbord  writes on Juli 21st 2014:

The late Russ Ackoff persuaded me decades ago that you can only change a system in relation to the larger system of which it is a part. So the issue is, what is the purpose of the proposed conference? If it’s team building, Future Search is overkill. Too much time line and mind map for too little impact on the institution. (Could be a lot of fun, though.) Who makes the flip charts together is what really matters. The magic markers don’t care. The words on the charts are always the same. What counts is what happens within and between the people present that has never happened before, that could not happen before. The “whole system in the room” is not a matter for debate. What should be focus of the discussion is who the system includes–if you wish to have ongoing commitment to a new plan.

If your clients really want strategic planning, they ought not call people from other institutions “outside stakeholders.” Instead, think of people to include when you redraw the boundaries of the system to include relevant people/institutions whose cooperation matters to everybody. I think your skeptic is right not want people simply because they hold certain opinions. They ought to be there because, if they choose, they could act in beneficial ways

I would urge the planners to consider potential partners, new alliances, collaborations that would benefit everybody. If you hold a Future Search, you offer everyone a priceless opportunity they may never have had. They cannot know that in advance. So having the right people from related institutions is actually an insurance policy against focusing on personal/interpersonal history. I have always noticed that the kids behave better when we have strangers to dinner. And so do the adults! I’ve found that faced with new opportunities to do things that cannot be done better any other way, nearly everybody behaves constructively. A Future Search group should be focusing outward–at the way they encounter the world–if strategic planning is their intention.

Closed retreats, including team building meetings, cannot change an institution’s future. All they do is use whatever content is available to recreate familiar dynamics. They may harden their differences (worst case) or improve the way they communicate and support one another (best case). They cannot influence the people they need who aren’t there. They cannot reorient their position in the wider world. This is quite a different matter than exposing political and interpersonal conflicts.

Good luck with this one.

Marv Weisbord