April 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA1

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Cooperative Extension System Creates Common Ground Through Search Workshops

The National Strategic Framework identified "common ground" on which the Cooperative Extension System has some agreement. Future search workshops engaged staff, volunteers, and customers in co-creating an ideal future. A sense of shared meaning emerged from the interests, values, and visions of individual participants.

Carol L. Anderson
Associate Director
Cooperative Extension
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York
Internet address: carol_anderson@cce.cornell.edu

Peter Bloome
Assistant Director
Agriculture and Environment
Urbana, Illinois
Internet address: bloomep@cesadmin.ag.uiuc.edu

John Bottum
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Extension Service
Office of the Administrator
Washington, District of Columbia
Internet address: jbottum@esusda.gov

Irene Lee
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Lincoln Moore
Cooperative Extension Program
Tuskegee University
Tuskegee, Alabama
Internet address: lmoore@acenet.auburn.edu

Shirley O'Brien
University of Arizona
Cooperative Extension
Tucson, Arizona
Internet address: sobrien@ag.arizona.edu

David Sanderson
Ellsworth, Maine

Bill Shimel
Information, Computer & Program Resources
Clemson University
Clemson, South Carolina
Internet address: bshimel@clemson.edu

In 1994 the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) and the Extension Service-United States Department of Agriculture (ES-USDA), appointed a six-member team and charged them to "design and manage a process that results in the (Cooperative Extension) System as a whole developing a strategic framework." In addition, they reminded the team that "processes and electronic communications are available to get the involvement of virtually every one of Extension's 32,000 personnel and appropriate customers and stakeholders in a meaningful way."

The charge to the strategic framework team included three important challenges: engage all 32,000 employees, complete the task in nine months or less, and create a framework rather than a strategic plan. This charge was different from those of similar projects over the years. Previously, the common practice had been to appoint a small group to prepare a statement, with a considerably longer timeline than this one.

The anticipated product was clear: it was to be a document, outlining a strategic framework for the Cooperative Extension System. For the members of the strategic framework team, the process leading to the creation of a document was the most difficult challenge. Building ownership and momentum for changes in the system required wide involvement.

A system-wide survey in the late spring of 1994 offered every individual in the system an opportunity to provide early input about the important issues and concerns facing extension. Their responses could be returned via paper or computer. This survey encouraged participants to share their insights and hopes for the future. Their ideas became valuable points of reference for identifying issues to be examined and clarified further in future search workshops and interviews with a limited number of stakeholders.

The future search workshop, developed over the past ten years by Marvin R. Weisbord (1), has proven to be a successful process for planning organizational change. Weisbord originally used this method with corporations. Professionals have begun to adapt this model to nonprofit organizations such as colleges, school districts, and hospitals and to small businesses and rural towns - virtually any complex system in which people care about their future and want the chance to create it together.

The future search workshop differs from traditional strategic planning in the length of time it takes and the number and nature of participants. It also emphasizes co-creating an ideal future rather than solving current problems.

The major differences between traditional strategic planning and the future search workshop are as follows:

Traditional Strategic Planning Future Search Workshop
Time involved
(after designing)
3-8 months 3 days
Number of participants 9-12 35-70-or-more
Nature of participants Cross section of the organization staff and managers (with some external input) Staff, faculty, administration, volunteers, and customers (primarily staff with greater input)

The framework team determined that the principles and format of future search workshops could ensure the broadest participation. Future search workshops were offered as part of a larger design to maximize staff contributions from across the entire system. Throughout the summer of 1994, four future search multi-state workshops were designed and held in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Denver. A synthesizing workshop in St. Paul brought together input from questionnaires, interviews, past documents, and the four multistate workshops, from which a draft of the framework was created. This draft was circulated throughout the system both in hard copy and via electronic mail to get input before developing a final product.

The four workshops involved more than 250 Cooperative Extension System employees from a cross section of the organization, including on-campus and off-campus professionals, clerical staff, and extension volunteers and customers. Workshop participants produced four draft documents that were synthesized in a fifth workshop held in St. Paul immediately following the searches.

More than 70 people (one from each Extension organization) created a first draft of the framework document, which was reviewed across the system in fall 1994. After considerable feedback, discussion, and a presentation to the directors and administrators in February 1995, Framing the Future: Strategic Framework for a System of Partnerships was published for distribution throughout the system.

Future Search Workshop Design

The design of the future search workshop is flexible and can include a variety of activities appropriate for organizations and participants. Future search workshops have the following basic elements:

  • The planners and participants understand the event as a community or shared learning experience. There are no lectures or speeches and there is little hierarchy. The participants are partners.

  • The participants are encouraged to see the event as a way to take control of their future and find a sense of shared meaning. A sense of equality develops among the participants as they see themselves as parts of the "whole system"; they are not distracted by issues of title and position.

  • The workshop begins by reconstructing the past from three perspectives: the individual, the small groups in which individuals function, and the Cooperative Extension System in the context of global events and trends. The aims are to realize a sense of community by focusing on shared experiences and values and to create a foundation for common ground for envisioning the future. *The middle portion of the workshop focuses on the present. By analyzing the current environment from the diverse points of view represented in the workshop, participants clarify their assumptions and develop a framework of the constraints and possibilities facing the system.

  • The highlight of the workshop comes as small groups co- create their ideal futures. Groups share their hopes and dreams in a detailed vision of the organization's accomplishments five to ten years in the future.

  • Small groups change during the workshop. For some activities, greater diversity of interests and expertise is valuable. In other assignments, participants with similar responsibilities come together to make meaningful input.

  • Typically, a future search workshop ends with planning action. (The Cooperative Extension System workshops, however, focused on the "framework" rather than implementation and thus allowed a different conclusion.)

    In the Cooperative Extension System future search workshops, two major challenges led to design innovations. The first challenge was the use of writing teams. Because a written document served as a summary of each workshop, it was important for the participants to prepare this document rather than rely on a small groups notes following the experiences.

    Writing teams made up of four to six workshop participants each refined the work of a particular section of a document. These teams took the work from the entire workshop and reported back, often two or more times, until the ideas and writing were acceptable to all the participants. Writing teams worked beyond the regular workshop sessions, usually over a meal, late into the evening or early morning. The schedule included time for writing teams to report back to the entire workshop so that agreement upon content and presentation was possible. Over the four- workshop series, the number of writing teams expanded as the complexity and difficulty of integrating diverse ideas increased and more participants wanted to contribute to each activity.

    The second challenge was that the workshops' design had to include time for topics beyond the regular tasks of a future search workshop. The strategic framework document required input to include an updated mission statement, the core values of the Cooperative Extension system, the five or six strategic issues facing the system, customers' expectations of the Cooperative Extension system and vice versa, and system governance.

Lessons Learned from the Extension Future Search Workshops

  • Involve people who represent diverse interests.

    Generally, the model of conducting multiple multistate future search workshops followed by a synthesizing workshop worked well for this large national educational system. Because each Extension organization chose who would attend, the mix of participants' backgrounds, perspectives, and values was left to chance. At least one perspective (production agriculture) received less emphasis than some of its adherents felt was desirable. As a result, the draft document produced by the synthesizing workshop met with slightly more resistance than it might have otherwise. In a decentralized system, however, ensuring the most representative participation is probably impossible, and in any case, workshop participants offered a wide range of perspectives on different issues.

  • Listeners make a substantial contribution.

    Several key organizational tensions were identified indirectly throughout the future search workshops. Examples of organizational tensions include rural and urban needs, the claims of agriculture and the needs of other people and communities, and the roles of the organization as an educator and provider of information. Often the tensions appeared to be so basic and intrinsic to the Extension system that participants alluded to them rather than overtly mentioning them when sharing ideas or summarizing a discussion. Members of the strategic framework team listened to the discussions, found a set of recurring themes, and interpreted what was shared. To the team's credit as listeners, members were able to identify these tensions and include them as "Challenges before Extension" in the strategic framework document. Thus a small team that does not itself actively participate serves a special listening function when several workshops are scheduled over a period of time.

  • Timing is critical.

    In the first future search workshop, the mission and values tasks took place during the first evening, before the participants focused on the present. In subsequent workshops, the mission and values tasks were held in the middle of the second morning, after the focus on the present. This latter placement worked much better for two reasons: the mission and values were especially "heavy" tasks for the end of a long first day, and participants clearly benefited from seeing stakeholder groups take responsibility for their concerns before mixed groups worked on the mission and values. In short, the potential "common ground" increased noticeably because the stakeholders' reports enhanced the sense of community.

  • Keep participants informed.

    Documents from earlier future search workshops were available to participants in later workshops but only at the conclusion of the workshop. The extension future search workshops followed this principle, and participants invariably approved of it. They were interested in how their work compared to that of other groups in different parts of the nation.

  • Create a sense of energy and mutual respect.

    Printed quotations from recent books on organization and development, such as Leadership and the New Science, were posted. These large charts emphasize the importance of widespread involvement, visioning, and collaboration.

    Peter Senge's guidelines for skillful discussion were shared and reviewed by workshop managers at least once during each workshop.

    Worksheets were printed on ultra bright fluorescent paper. Participants expressed positive reactions about this detail because they could easily locate a specific task by it's color.

Application to Ongoing Work

The model used to develop the system-wide framework has application for planning initiatives nationally, statewide and locally. Cornell Cooperative Extension has applied the model in two different planning efforts. A statewide strategic planning process to update the Expanded Food and Nutrition Program applied the model and found that when asked, staff, volunteers, and stakeholders made meaningful input that helped to shape a plan. "Common ground" or future search workshops engaged participants in guided dialogue that focused on the future and what changes would make this reality. Through technology, drafts of ideas were presented and substantial numbers of people responded in short periods of time. Modifications were made and again shared so that all participants could see how the product evolved. This process when applied in a statewide setting required approximately nine months and the input was rich. The timeline in a county might be reduced. However, adequate time is needed to gather input through a variety of means including workshops. Additionally, input into the eventual plan is important and requires time, especially when substantial changes are made and again shared. The Managing Change in Agriculture national initiative has adapted the model. A small team representing different geographic and discipline interests has been designated to provide system-wide leadership. A team of technical experts which expands the participants contributes to the design through technology-assisted interaction. Input will be sought through a variety of ways.

Concluding Thoughts

The four future search workshops differed in size and tone but not in the participants' responses to the workshops or in the documents each produced. The first workshop included nearly 110 people, whereas the other three ranged from 45 to 65 participants. While different in emphasis, the four draft documents contained a remarkable amount of "common ground" and offered members of the synthesizing workshop a broad agreement about the future direction for the system. Based on responses to several open-ended questions given at the end of each future search workshop, most participants were surprised and pleased by the principles and conduct of the workshops, especially the high degree of involvement and interaction across the system. More than 75 percent of the participants expressed a desire to use the process when seeking input and building common goals upon returning home.

Participants found the future search workshops to be a powerful way to engage participants in meaningful discussions resulting in agreement on what the future needs to include. The words "Common Ground" established a visual image for participants to focus on. Participants noted the importance of involving staff, regardless of position, in setting a strategic direction. A renewed sense of energy and hope for the Extension system was evident from the beginning gathering to the ending ceremony


Sadowske, S., & Warren, B. (1994). Rethinking Extension Work: Lessons from the New Sciences. A paper prepared for the Program Leadership Committee of ECOP/ES-USDA.

Senge, P. M. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. New York: Doubleday Dill Publishing Group: 385-391.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

United States Department of Agriculture Extension Service (1994). Strategic Framework for the Cooperative Extension System. Washington DC: United States Department of Agriculture Extension Service and Extension Committee on Organization and Policy.

Weisbord, M. R., and Janoff, S. (1995). Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Weisbord, M. R., et.Al (1992). Discovering Common Ground: How Future Search Conferences Bring People together. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Wheatley, M. J. (1992). Leadership and the New Science. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

(1) - For additional information about future search methodology, see Marvin R. Weisbord et Al., Discovering Common Ground: How Future Search Conferences Bring People Together (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1992); Marvin R. Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1995).