Planning and Executing a Pragmatic Action Search


The first step in searching is working with the local actors who want to commission a search. This discussion is important for many reasons. The ini­tial question that motivates local people may not necessarily be the most fun­damental one for their group or may not be stated in a way that can lead to a productive search. Because searching is a form of cogenerative learning, ample time must be devoted to discussion with those commissioning the search so that everyone has a clear idea what the process is all about.

Because the process aims to create mutual learning opportunities, the facilitator should challenge the initial problem focus and in turn be challenged by the local definitions of the problem at hand. Through this dialogue, the resulting mutual understanding will provide the definition of the search prob­lem used to plan the search conference. It is highly advisable to have two people serve as cofacilitators or search conference managers.


The next step is to identify potential participants. For searches, an ideal size is between 20 and 40 persons, but searches have been done successfully with up to 70 participants, and recently some linked searches involving a number of groups concerned with the same issues have been carried out involving hundreds of participants (Robert Rich, 1998, personal communica­tion; Pelletier, Kraak, McCullum, Uusitalo, & Rich, 1999; Pelletier, McCullum, Kraak, & Asher, 2003; Peters, Hittleman, & Pelletier, 2005).

The proper identification of relevant stakeholders is vital. They are identi­fied as a function of the focus of the search. Every effort has to be made to locate individuals and groups that have a legitimate interest or say in the mat­ter under consideration. This is a complex procedure that usually begins with the points of view of those who commissioned the search. But this group is rarely fully representative of the relevant stakeholders. The facilitator must seek to manage the process of inclusion to be certain that as many relevant stake­holder interests as possible are present.

This begins with discussions with those commissioning the search, but quickly the process of finding and inviting relevant participants becomes a form of network analysis. Starting with names and groups provided by the start-up group, each new potential participant contacted is also asked for recommendations about others or other groups who should be invited to the search. Continuing along these lines, an emergent selection of participants is established. Often the scope of those included expands and contracts a few times until a tolerable balance has been achieved.


When the facilitator judges that a suitable group of people has been identi­fied as participants and the local stakeholders agree, invitations must be made. In our opinion, the best way to do this is to combine the invitation with an inter­view. If the invitations are made by the facilitators, the facilitators can, through the interviews, gain more knowledge about the participants, their backgrounds, and their institutional contexts, which will help the search facilitators be more effective. The interview provides the facilitator with an understanding of the per­sons and the situation that enables the facilitator to make knowledge-based deci­sions regarding the structure and process of the search while it is taking place. At the same time, this invitational interview is valuable as a way of informing par­ticipants about what a search conference is. This can both inform and motivate the potential participants. Occasionaliy, constraints require delegating this task to the planning group. ^then this is done, at the very least, participants are invited by people they know and have a chance to ask questions about the process in a comfortable environment. As in everything else, the better prepared the facilitator and participants are, the more likely the search will be successful.


We will not go into detail here about the material support structures for searches, except to say that a good setting and logistical support are critically important. The search depends on a group learning about itself, so the setting must be at least somewhat retreat-like, permitting the participants to separate themselves from their daily lives briefly and focus intensively on each other and the problem at hand. This creates the opportunity for people to get to know each other socially during the moments the search itself is not running, and it creates a distance from everyday life that enhances the opportunities for reflec­tion and concentration on the issues of the search.

It is important to find a locale that has a big enough room for plenary discussions. The room needs to be large enough for the participants to move freely around, and the walls should be filled with flip charts displaying the work in progress. The setting must also contain ample small group working spaces. An area to collect and maintain materials is important as well.

In preparing a search, close cooperation with a group of local participants is a prerequisite. This creates a good basis for inviting members and also helps members of the planning group serve as cofacilitators. This has the effect of training local people to handle future searches by themselves, but it has also an important democratic effect by giving local people a say in decisions regarding the design and management of the search conference.


A typical search process takes about 2 days, though the length of time is flexible. The argument for using this much time is that searches depend on col­lective learning processes, processes that do not move fast. A shorter search might too easily fall into the trap of becoming a quick fix and violate the basic aims of creating a sustainable learning process.

The search begins with a plenary on the shared history of the problem being dealt with, followed by sessions on the ideal and probable futures. This usually ends the first day. The second day begins with the development of action strategies, the creation of task forces, and the search ends with the plan­ning of future meetings.


The first step in searching is to create a shared history. This is not to say that a unified understanding of the group’s historical roots must exist. Rather, the focus is that all participants should be aware of the other actors’ understanding of the relevant history. The core idea is to show how multifaceted and hetero­geneous the history is; this wil be obvious after all points of view have been heard. Most groups at a search already have a history together, but the search­generated history is different because it actively seeks out the experiences and views that are often overlooked or actively suppressed in everyday life.

One common way to initiate the search is to have a well-respected member of the group draw up a kind of broad-view historical sketch. Then each group of participants is given the opportunity to work out its own version of the history. These are combined in plenary sessions until together the whole group has developed a more heterogeneous position that satisfies it as a whole.

Another way to develop a shared history is based on the creative use of drawing and writing. In the plenary room, a wall area is covered with paper to write and draw on. It can be a line of separate sheets or a long sheet ofbutcher- block paper (Martin & Rich, 1994). On this surface, a very rough timeline is drawn, starting on the left with an initiating point and continuing up to the present. Participants are then given the opportunity to add drawings or events anywhere they have something to contribute. After this, the wholegroup listens as each person who has added something explains it. Through this approach, participants can learn and build on each other’s interpretation of history, and the whole process creates a new cogenerated history.


The general aim of this part of the search process is to create a shared position about a desirable and feasible future. This is built from the contrast between an ideal future and a probable one. An ideal future can be a vision of how the local community or organization should look by the end of the next decade. The core issues here are to have the participants surface their views and share their sense of what a desirable future is. This is again a collective process, where participants engage in a discourse using both small groups and plenar­ies to create a sort of consensus. What often emerges is a general agreement that allows room for individual interpretations and actions.

Although absolute consensus is not necessary or desired, there must be a tolerable level of mutual understanding and agreement. A search conference can produce useful results only where there is a minimum common under­standing and consensus on goals. Martin ( 1995) argues a harder line, claiming that strong differences about the ideal future make it less likely that a search conference will produce practical results.

One way to carry out the process of defining the ideal future is to start with small, relatively homogeneous groups and to ask each group to identify 5 or 10 important goals to reach on the search issue. Each group then presents its view in plenary, and this creates the basis for a discussion among all the par­ticipants. The search facilitators must see to it that the plenary discussion grad­ually focuses on issues that participants can agree on. This working consensus is important because it will be the reference point for the later action teams.

The probable future is arrived at by the same technique. The groups are asked to develop their sense of what will happen if they do not take action to improve their future. This part of the process is sensitive because the negative view of the future is usually easier to articulate and often corresponds to the participants’ worst fears. We think groups must deal openly with these fears because naming their worst fears contributes to the sense of the need for real change.

Once the search group has identified the probable future, the kind of bub­bling energy that is often associated with the history and ideal future seems to evaporate. This reality check is part of the process, and the facilitators should do nothing to make it easier or more tolerable. Indeed, we believe that it is important for each participant to experience directly the implications of not taking action. This is the basis for making a subsequent commitment to action. To reinforce this, usually the day ends at this point, with the participants left to their own ruminations about the ideal and probable futures. Alternative endings are possible. The time available, the kinds of issues, and the group dynamics often suggest modifications in the segmentation of the time.


Given an overall understanding of desirable goals and the results of no action, the task isto develop action ideas and strategies that support the attain­ment of valued goals. This process builds on the creative capacity of the par­ticipants. It is important to encourage participants to let their creative capacity come out in the open. Too often in everyday life, we experience very low demands on our personal creativity; in a search, it is a good investment to devote plenty of time to encouraging this kind of creativity.

To do this, certain rules must be observed. Criticism of the ideas of others is not permitted. Participants may ask each other for clarification, but all ideas are treated as worthy of consideration. No one is permitted to dominate the airtime or to shut others down. The facilitator must be alert to gender, age, race, and ideological differences and try to keep the dialogue as open as possi­ble. One good way to encourage creativity at thispoint is to set up small groups of participants who differ in experience and position in the local community or organization. Members work on developing strategies and action plans that are subsequently presented in the plenary session. In the plenary, the partici­pants are encouraged not to criticize the ideas presented, though they are free to ask for clarification.


If the creative process has worked, by this time the assembled group has generated many options for action from which to choose. Al these aim to reach the ideal future. It is in the nature of the creative process leading up to this, however, that these ideas are not in any particular order. To be worked with in the large group, they must be ordered in some way. We believe this is a task for the search facilitators.

In many searches, the first day is coming to an end at this point while in other searches, the day ends with the participants facing their worst fears. When options for action have been generated, the facilitators can use the late evening to work on creating categories of action items that can be grouped together. This is a very important task because it shapes the ground for the pri­oritization process. This is one of the key skills the facilitators bring to the process. Facilitators must have the ability to understand the local culture, to be intellectually capable of distinguishing between alternatives, and to understand similarities. Although the facilitators’ synthesis is never final, it provides the basis for the next day’s prioritization process.

The next day begins with the presentation of the facilitators’ organization of action items. After questions of clarification and modification have been addressed, an open plenary discussion ensues to create some understanding of how diverse the participants’ views are. If common core issues easily emerge, the move toward setting priorities will be straightforward. If no clear and uni­fied view emerges in the plenary, it then makes sense to redivide the partici­pants into small groups to work on the issues. Each group, for instance, might be given the task of developing a list of the three to five most desirable action issues. This will then be presented in plenary, and the group as a whole can see if a possible road to making collective decisions has emerged.


The final stage of the search is the creation of action teams responsible for addressing the agreed-on action issues. This is the acid test of the prioritization process. Here participants vote with their feet by signing up on sheets on which the key action items have been listed. Usually, some of the issues identified by the participants as important will not attract any sign-ups. Although reflecting on these is worthwhile, the purpose of a search is to define not an ideal world of action but a world in which people are willing to commit to concrete actions to solve problems. There are always more plans than energy or courage to deal with them.

To conclude the search conference, the newly created action teams have a brief planning session. Each develops a plan for the first part of their work. This plan should integrate a specification of the goals for the group, a detailed schedule including concrete meeting dates, and the selection of a temporary convener of the group. The participants as a group also must commit to spe­cific general follow-up meetings. An ideal situation is to have the process, including the search conference itself, last for a year. General follow-up meet­ings every 2 to 3 months keep track of the development process by allowing participants to share the results of the different task forces. This can lead to increased learning opportunities for everyone, creating collective ownership and control over the change effort.

We want to reinforce the point that search practices can vary considerably. The length of the phases, the numbers of facilitators and participants, the con­figurations of small groups, the degree of emphasis on the rules of discussion all differ because facilitators differ or because the same facilitator skillfully adjusts the approach to the developing dynamics of particular groups. Thus, searching is not a recipe but a highly skilled, cogenerative AR process. Efforts to treat it as a recipe result in ineffective action and processes that are misrep­resented as participatory.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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