Search conference

$15k to $75k
estimated cost of external help
  • Scan and research
  • Explore options
  • Prioritise options
  • Collaborate
0-2 weeks
estimated run time
3-5 weeks
estimated lead time
Experienced facilitator
recommended experience
An event where thinking and working together takes precedence over learning or listening to experts. This format is useful for complex problems that involve diverse stakeholders, especially if it’s necessary for those stakeholders to work together to deliver the eventual solution.

A search conference is similar to an unconference in that it is participant-led and puts the conveners into a listening and hosting role. This fundamental shift can energise participants, and help to deepen mutual understanding and trust, and develop shared values. It goes beyond an unconference because it emphasises arriving at a shared strategy, an agreed solution, and an action plan. Thus, it requires a more structured process and more-active facilitation. The process may need anywhere from 1–3 days, ideally in an immersive situation (that is, away from the usual workplaces and day-to-day concerns).

In 5 steps...

  1. Kick things off by discussing the outcomes and process for the day, and how a search conference works.
  2. Focus on developing a shared understanding of the broader system. Encourage many viewpoints, exploratory conversations, and the creation of external visuals that represent the thought process (at a minimum, notes on flip charts).
  3. Focus on how the system will change over time. What are the different possible futures? What are our preferred futures? How might we find our way to a preferred future from here?
  4. Support the group in developing action plans, roadmaps or implementation plans that can get them to their preferred future.
  5. Set up working groups or other ongoing means for willing participants to deliver on action plans or otherwise make progress together.

When to use it

Search conferences are best used when collaboration among participants is crucial to solving the problem and to implementing the solution well. The collaborative approach needs to be well supported by official problem owners, so that participants can trust that their intensive work will have an influence on the outcomes.


  • Ability to explore issues or ideas in detail.
  • Enables participants to talk about the things that matter most to them.
  • Can deliver truly novel and high-quality solutions in a short span of time.
  • Builds trust and relationships between participants.
Long term
  • Kickstarts local momentum on an issue if ongoing involvement is desirable.
  • Better-aligned solutions and language.
  • Increased levels of support and enthusiasm for the project.


  • Planning the event and designing the process is time-consuming and requires specialist expertise.
  • If the process is not sufficiently well designed, or your facilitator is unable to keep it on track, you might not get the result you are seeking.
  • When working groups aren’t well supported after the event, or the work is disregarded by decision-makers, participants can become disillusioned with the process.



  • Clarify the outcomes for the event, and design a process that will deliver those outcomes. Test this with some potential participants.
  • Find a time and location for the event that is appropriate for the audience.
  • Source participants – focus on achieving sufficient diversity to bring all perspectives to the problem: different demographic groups affected by the problem in question, experts from different fields, and participants with different thinking and working styles.
  • Design and plan the working environment carefully to ensure it supports your process, and that participants will be comfortable and relaxed.

During the process

  • Ensure participants understand the process and feel confident enough to express a tension or an idea to improve the process.
  • Have strong facilitators who can keep the process on track, but who also leave room to adapt the process as needed based on what emerges.
  • Avoid any situation where participants are forced to listen to an expert or engage in a learning activity for too long, and focus instead on supporting them to direct their own efforts towards their common goal.
  • Consider having a visual scribe capture the whole process. This can help participants feel like the seemingly serendipitous conversations are contributing to a meaningful output.
  • Have a clear plan for what the post-event work might look like, and how it will be organised and resourced, so that participants have a head start on organising themselves at the end of the event.


  • Follow up with all participants by sending them any documents or write-ups that resulted from the events, and telling them how they can stay involved.