Photo: Satu Engblom
Photo: Satu Engblom

How to Govern the Process of Change in Communities with the Help of a Search-Conference

Anja Salmi

When change happens at present speed in our social, political, economical and ecological environment, it creates uncertainty, stress and fear to the ones who are influenced by it. Passive withdrawal conducts stagnation at the same time as our social environment is chaotic. Often individuals feel the situation irrelevant and estranger if the adaptation to change seems unconquerable. We are living crucial times in our collective life . It is justified to take a break and look at where we are and what we can do to matters.

In Finland particularly the small communities who earlier made their living on agriculture and forestry, live under constant population deficit and are located far away from each other, suffer from the lack of resources for adaptation. Each community is a place of feelings (Armstrong 2000). In the face of loss a community may gradually give up hope, and it may sink into primitive feelings and a distorted understanding of reality. (Menzies Lyth 1975). It becomes all the more difficult to create a deep understanding and a realistic view of the nature of problems. Actions cannot be taken before the crisis is very close or it has already happened although considerable decrease in resources is already serious enough. (Menzies Lyth 1988). The community may float into unrealistic magic solutions where all the more is demanded from society. (Menzies Lyth 1975). The primitive mechanisms which start to function are among others denial, ambivalence, omnipotence, splitting and idealisation of own resources. Together they are called primitive defences. (Jaques 1955).

In the case study it is described how by observing primitive defences the state of the community can be interpreted, for example as people start to look for a joint enemy outside or a scapegoat inside the community to prohibit internal fragmentation.

In this lecture is also described a Search-conference model, which has been developed by Trist and Emery (1959) with the help of Mary Bernard´s unpublished notes. It is presented as a tool for the community to change the way in which it is working in crisis and to govern the direction that it can strive towards instead of passive floating.

The case-study is a small community located in an area of natural beauty far away from ´anywhere else´. It gets its livelihood mainly from services: One state department has a central role in employment. Agriculture brings livelihood to 4 percent and industry with its share of 25 percent contains among others a bakery and a construction company. 51 percent of inhabitants are retired and birth has totally drained a few years ago. Summer inhabitants guarantee big enough consumption of power for upkeeping the grocery store and delivery of the fuel. There is an active closed FB forum in the community from which the case material has been picked.

Tourism was still lively a few decades ago when accommodation in a tent was fashionable. While demands have grown, no investments are made for facilities and their absence does not lengthen the short season. Tourism today cannot give livelihood to many.

Defences and how they work

In the region there is no general discussion of the future or how to get by today. The historical past is strongly present. Denial of survival possibilities prohibits facing reality. It is believed that nothing can damage the community’s members (omnipotence).

Community survives because it always has.

This idea is based on inhabitants’ excellent genetic heritance (idealisation), which consists of brave men and resilient women refined by centuries. The locality is deeply split particularly in the east-west axle, but also original inhabitants and those moved in from other places are against each other (splitting). There are no immigrants in the community if one does not calculate one foreign family drawn into itself.


Because of natural beauty tourism is the most important developmental area within livelihood activities. There is no vision of sufficient investment in accommodation and other facilities.

August 2018:
The community applied and received support from a developing fund to organize a youth festival, which did not activate the inhabitants in the desired way. Also the entrance fee was considered to be immoderate for community members. Music in the centre of the community created grudges by disturbing the peace of nature. 500 visitors were expected to attend the festival when in reality 45 people paid the entrance fee. It was decided not to organize the festival anymore in the year after.

January 2019:

One funding source made an effort to support innovative entrepreneurship. In a joint entrepreneur meeting local production of bottled water for tourists was the chosen topic. The project was resisted in the beginning because of environmentally harmful plastic bottles, and it was proposed to give tourists a jug of water. When it emerged that the intention was to use glass bottles the threat of water consumption to ground water rose up. Bottling project equated to two days of water consumption. It also had guaranteed stable consumption when carried out in winter time, and so it had diminished the consumption load on ground water. After this it was feared how intake of water would damage the playing of pike although there was no professional fishing in the community. Reality stumblings reached a point where the washing of bottles was criticized for poisoning the environment. It was told how the plan was not to wash but to crush bottles and replace them with new ones. The parties working with this project gave up.

April 2019:

A third organisation promised to fund bird tourism in the community. The project proceeded resiliently in the storm of multiple resistances. There was debate of the role of external specialists in relation to local actors. Private roads led to the best bird watching places where it was difficult to get a parking permission etc. Also a ´competing enterprise´ was born and got a big foot space in the community when a local aged active lady demanded the planned birdhouse to be split into two parts and the other part to be dedicated to a community art museum. The goal was to exhibit artwork inspired by the natural beauty of the region. Many meetings and lectures were organized for founding an art museum without funding and understanding of maintenance expenses or profitability of this kind of activity. The bird project gave space to the art museum-competitor. As a result neither birdhouse nor art museum was built.

After completing the birdwatching project a debate arose of what kind of tourists are wanted into the region. This was discussed by prominent people in an actively used FB forum. Accusations were targeted towards bird tourists by claiming that they are letting minks loose from traps to return them back to nature. This issue generated a quarrel in which a part of the inhabitants placed themselves on the side of birdwatchers in 2019.

Nature values have turned against survival.

Joint values

The local people are brought together by ´nature values´ which have anyhow turned against survival in their extreme. Nature values are used as an argument for any change resistance to undermine any developmental scheme.

Joint historical values are also common among the community’s inhabitants. Members have a strong identity based on survival of past times which cannot be transformed to reflect the present world. The community has a self-made home museum which is a joint treasure. While presenting themselves people may explain how far back their family roots lead in the region. The most prestigious people are retired with an agricultural background. They idealize heating with wood, cultivating own groceries, hunting and transportation without cars. These elderly people are retired and don’t seem to be worried about the financial situation of younger inhabitants in the community. They deny their mutual interdependence with the younger, and in case of illness there won’t be enough funding or staff to nurture them in the community.


Summer inhabitants bring a considerable input to the community’s vitality. They are mainly offspring of local people who have moved out of the community and who actively oppose the efforts connected with tourism in the name of their own ´nature values´ and ´vacation peace´.

Understanding reached temporarily above the threshold of denial when the grocery store was closed as unprofitable. The owner lived outside the community. The store
was replaced with a new shop, which was founded as a co-operative by inhabitants. The shopkeeper was brought in from outside the community. Without a local food store the distance to the nearest grocery outside the community takes more than an hour by motor vehicle.

Scapegoats and enemies outside

As one easily understands, a community as a public corporation is under continuous threat of being wound up. Belief in one’s own omnipotence caused by fear of change prohibits inhabitants from seeing this reality and the reason is thrown on the shoulders of forces outside. It may be the EU:s desire to control or submit efforts of Finnish authorities. Even the community director expresses accusations in FB towards bureaucrats outside of diminishing members of the community. When tourism fails, society is blamed for organizing lousy traffic connections.

Those individuals who express worry for the future are labelled to be belligerent intending to humiliate previous generations, eager to carve gold or stupid and their discussions in joint FB forum are to extracted or limited.


When one summarizes phenomena expressed above: The poisonous bottle wash, birdwatcher´s mink traps, EU´s desire to control the community, searching and finding domestic scapegoats together with primitive defences of denial, splitting, idealisation and omnipotence this community can be with reason named to be a schizoid-paranoid system. This concept was created by Bion and used by Jaques and Menzies Lyth (1979).

Competitivenes locates within the community borders.

This community is a closed system, and its competitiveness is located within its borders. It is not capable of transformation required by its environment or integrating new members. Its inhabitants are not capable of specialization together with small enterprises´ co-operation which is required in developing tourism.

It seems difficult to approach or solve the survival possibilities of this community. Every positive effort seems to lead to all the more negative result. Sometimes one has to accept the fact that some communities die of their own incapability to change, yet a more positive response to change is necessary to all social systems.
People´s activities are influenced by their values. Same basic values are likely to create similar goals for the long-term future, and joint values can be a suitable ground to plan for social change.

I will describe Search-conference method based on Bions (1955) perception of impact of emotional processes in groups, Selznick´s concept of nature of organisations (1949) and on Ash´s (1998) theory of shared psychological field. It is based on the principles of equality of participation, contribution, responsibility, ownership, commitment and accomplishment.

  • At first the Systems Approach in which society is seen holistically. The community contains complex interrelationships of subsystems. They are interdependent upon each other for functioning properly: One subsystem´s conditions affect and are effected by other subsystems conditions and, thereby, the entire system. Any problem is part of interrelated interdependent problems. Specific problems must be considered and formulated in light of the whole complexity. Participants in the conference should have a joint understanding of mutual interrelationship and interdependency. The conference ought to develop a range of choices and guidelines for the future. Working underlines the quality of human interaction, and studies how people interact within the process, within their sub-system, and in the wider social system.
  • Secondly Active-Adaptive Approach which assumes that problems arise due to inadequate or inappropriate responses to change. The most effective way is to learn how to adapt to changing conditions. It is important to create an attitude of taking planned, constructive actions. In this way people can best influence the factors which affect their present and future.
  • Thirdly Experiential Learning which is what people learn by doing. It is the most lasting and meaningful type of learning in which the learning experience is also a change.
  • Fourthly Participative Democracy. Those people who have experience and knowledge of a specific problem are the experts on that topic. They should be involved in creating possible solutions. All perceptions, opinions, and ideas should be shared and treated as equally valid. Each person must take ownership and responsibility for the shared problem and be committed to act upon solutions. Longer term outcomes depend on commitment of developing action plans and development of a broader base of support through outreach to other groups after the joint picture of desired future has been created.

The participants are to identify Ackoff´s concept of interactive planning which involves five interdependent phases as basic pillar on which the conference is built (Ackoff 1974):

  • Desired future (ends planning)
  • How to achieve this (means planning)
  • What equipment will be necessary (resource planning)
  • How to manage the system most effectively to pursue the desired future (organisational planning)
  • How to ensure that the system continues to adapt to changes within and outside of it while pursuing this desired future (implementation and control planning)

Another basic pillar is practical application of approaching problem-solving known as ´action learning´, which is a generic form of learning by doing, which makes the learning more concrete and lasting, which is to say, more ´real´ to the learner.

Structure and process

The task of the conference is co-operative planning for a mutually desirable future. It consists of minimally structured modules of five steps called Sessions.

Planning for mutually desirable future

The participants are to be collected from the community as widely as possible. Everybody is an expert of his own experience and the identified problem born of it. All opinions are equal. It is optimal to have 35-50 participants from different community, church, voluntary or individual organisations and from all different governance and societal layers. The five four-hour modules can be held either during one weekend or within a maximum time span of four months. The participants have to commit to attend all modules because absence complicates other’s work. Participants are to commit to joint values and to take responsibility for acting upon decisions and following up the success in the long run.

Participants are divided into small working groups, which maintain the same membership for the first four Sessions. For Session five, each participant is free to choose which small group they would like to work with. At the end of each five sessions, the small groups come together to share their work with all of the conference participants. All comments and proposals made in small groups will be recorded on flip-chart paper, then posted and kept up for the duration of the conference, so that participants can look back at what has been achieved. At the end of each Session small groups get together into a large group to continue working by sharing the results with all participants.

The conference has a ´conference manager´ and each small group has a ´facilitator´. Small groups select after each session a different ´reporter´, who tells the results of the work for the large-group´s enlightenment. In the last module it is decided whether practical or controlling structures are needed to carry out what has been accomplished in practise.

Photo: Satu Engblom

The purpose of the Search-Conference is to create guidelines for actions which will work towards the ´desirable future´ and to develop a shared commitment and responsibility. The goal is to establish structures, to develop new, collaborative relationships through participants´ understanding of how improved relations and mutual assistance are necessary in moving towards mutual goals. It is important to develop an awareness of the validity of local initiatives. Real transformation is necessarily a slow, evolutionary process which requires on-going work and commitment.

The future can be improved by reversing threats in the wider environment.

Comprehensive change would lead to frustration and disillusionment in the long run. It is important to understand that the domain which the participants are representing is an intermediate between the individual ´stakeholders´ and the wider society. Collectively they can improve the future by reversing threats in the wider environment. We have to be explicit in our proposals and experimental in our approaches.

It is easy to understand how after continuous efforts and failures and disappointments followed by them hope disappears from the life of small communities. It is characteristic to organisations of our time that it is difficult if not impossible to predict the future (Sharpe 2013) and how in each individual situation all possible roads for progression seem equal. When groups regress and start functioning by primitive defences the usage of ambivalence makes the decision making impossible in the situation. When also other primitive defences, for example splitting, are taken into usage, when each member is representing a fragment of the joint totality, when these fragments start debating the future, the result is often an unsolved quarrel followed by stagnation. Collectively decided goals, commitment to joint agreements and understanding of the mutual interdependence of complex adaptive systems are elements described in this lecture which may help to return hope and joint future into small communities.


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