Dave Snowden

The Future Backwards

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I (Sonja) have long been a fan of the Future Backwards exercise, in my opinion it is a CE component which is largely under-valued by practitioners. I’ve been using it with great success, in many different contexts, from Strategic planning workshops to Culture audits. It is also an excellent tool to set context when doing knowledge discovery.

In the project I’ve been discussing in my previous posts, we used the Future Backwards to start off all our discovery workshops. We found it to be a great pre-cursor to an Anecdote Circle, as it allows people to get into ‘story’ mode much quicker, as they’ve already established shared context. In some cases (especially where language/literacy was an issue) we found that we often managed to gather better stories when we asked people to share experiences around elements they listed in Today, rather than using prepared questions.

In workshops like this, when we’re working with groups more than 12 people, we break into smaller groupings of 5 or 6 and run the exercise simultaneously across multiple walls. Upon completion, we mark the hexies (in order to track which wall it originally belonged to) and mix the various group’s outputs together. We then scatter these combined outputs across four walls (i.e. we have all the group’s today outputs scattered on one ‘today wall’, similar with heaven, hell and the timeline). We then ask the group to cluster the outputs for likeness. This has proven to be an extremely useful exercise, as they start seeing patterns or themes across the various walls. Typically what we’ve found is that Today themes represent current top-of-mind issues, Heaven themes aspirational elements (a wishlist if you will) and Hell themes indicate collective fears. The timeline shows key events that’re stuck in the collective memory of the organisation, and may influence decision making).

In groups made up of specific sub-groupings i.e. managers and team members or representatives from different business units, we often have them doing the future backwards in homogenous smaller groups (e.g. marketing on one wall, sales on another). We then look at, and reflect on the differences between the walls before mixing the outputs. Clustering is done in mixed groups.

Depending on the context of the workshop, an optional final step in the process is to call in the cartoonist and have the entire group co-create a visual representation of heaven. From a change perspective, this is an excellent way of obtaining buy-in into a change process. The group is usually extremely engaged in this process, and very proud of the outcome at the end. In one workshop, we had the participant groupings each draw their own heaven and present it back to the larger group, before the cartoonist stepped in and drew a consolidated version. This also proved highly effective.

The cartoonist, using the image of heaven the group created, along with the outputs from the clustered walls, usually draws today and hell as well. These are then delivered to the client as laminated A2 posters, to be used in further Change initiatives.