The Future, Backwards

The Future, Backwards method was created to aid in widening the range of perspectives a group of people can take on understanding their past and the possibilities of their future. The entrained perspectives of people within an organisation give them a limited view of the present, and such entrained patterns of past perception can determine its future. As a workshop tool the Future Backwards method can be used to generate prompts for anecdotes, or its data points can be used in a contextualisation exercise such as …the butterfly stamped. On the whole the output from a Future Backwards exercise gives leaders an overview of the hopes and fears of their organisation, and it helps them understand which entrained patterns of past perception are influencing its future.


Typical Uses

  • As an alternative to traditional strategic/scenario planning which place excessive emphasis on ideal future states
  • To embed lessons from organisation’s past in decision making
  • To aid in conflict resolution between different groups with opposing views



Some thought is required when working out the logistics of this exercise. A key early decision is to decide if you are using the method on multiple groups (to compare different outputs) or with one group. It might be useful to consider the comparative approach as it allows access to, and understanding of, varying perspectives. Multiple groups do not have to carry out the process on the same day, however it is important they are not privy to each others’ results. This activity requires a fair amount of working space – check in advance that there is available blank wall space or open table surfaces. Participants will have to use these spaces to construct hypothetical timelines with the use of hexies.

In designing the session first decide:

  1. How to divide participants into groups – it is usually most effective to have several teams create, compare and contrast a Future Backwards product. 6 to 10 people per group is ideal, any more or less would detract from natural group dynamics.
  2. On what basis will the groups compare/contrast their products – real-time in the same workshop, in multiple workshops over time and space.
  3. Teams must not be shown prior or sample Future Backwards output before they have an opportunity to create their own, as this patterns their thinking.
  4. (Optional) A legend is placed on the wall that illustrates what each hexagon represents.

Hexies should be used as follows:

If you have seven colours, assign one to each beforehand:
Current State (CS)
Turning points backwards from CS
Turning points backwards from heaven
Turning points backwards from hell
Accidents on hell or heaven pathway

If you simply do not have enough colours:
Current state
Turning points backwards from CS, heaven and hell
Heaven & Hell (marked)

Things You'll Need

  • Depending on size of group, at least 5 stacks of hexie pads – with 4 to 7 different colours – to help differentiate the categories of ideas plotted on the Future Backwards chart
  • Black markers, preferably Sharpies
  • If using a wall or table, butcher paper to line it
  • Naturally, lining a glass wall is not necessary



Task Comment

Provide groups with coloured hexies for each stage and provide them with descriptions of each stage and get them to think as creatively as possible about each stage. Get them to write the events that come to mind and place them on the butcher paper.

The stages should be considered and thought through one at a time – there is no right or wrong answer.

Firstly, describe Current State
Each group is then asked to identify descriptions that for them summarise the current state of affairs (CS). Each of these descriptions should be written on a single hexi and the results clustered two thirds to the right and in the centre vertically. Check that the hexies are placed in the correct area!

It’s a common confusion for the group to think that each member should produce their own CS statements when the group as a whole should discuss and agree the CS – group consensus is necessary. Ensure colour coding on the slide matches hexies that you hand out. Watch for dominant or disengaged personalities which might compromise the results. Make sure that the whole group is active in discussing each decision.

Identify Key Events (working backwards)

Each group is now asked to identify the most significant event in the immediate past which shaped the CS and to describe it on a single hexi to be placed to the left of the CS cluster.

This process can be started with each group as they become free to commence it. Groups will work at their own pace, however it is important to try to pressure groups to match each other’s pace. If necessary, prepare another task for groups that finish early.

Normally you should contrast the phrase ‘impossibly good’ with a phrase often used in scenario planning, namely ‘best possible’.

Next, describe Heaven

Each group is then asked to imagine an IMPOSSIBLY good future (Heaven) and describe the conditions/experience of Heaven with hexies discussed and agreed by the group. The results are then placed in the upper right hand corner of the work area. Ritual dissent (if there are multiple groups) can be used to challenge heavens and hells, but if this is the case, the historical strand should be covered so other groups do not see the material before they have finished.

This process can be started with each group as they become free to commence it. Groups will work at their own pace, however it is important to try to pressure groups to match each other’s pace. If necessary, prepare another task for groups that finish early.

Normally you should contrast the phrase ‘impossibly good’ with a phrase often used in scenario planning, namely ‘best possible’.

Next, describe Hell

They then repeat the process for an IMPOSSIBLY bad future state with the results placed in the bottom right hand area of the work area. Make it very clear that this is a single track backwards from the CS cluster, not from each CS item.

Note that the phrase heaven and hell may be culturally sensitive and alternative words may be need to be used. Suggestions include Utopia v Dystopia, Golden Age v Doomsday.

Next, connect Heaven to a past event with fictional events

Each group is then asked to make heaven happen. They are asked to do this the same way that they worked this history of the CS. Normally you should contrast the phrase impossibly good with a phrase often used in scenario planning, namely best possible.

The group are allowed to have one accident or completely unexpected event in the backwards path.

They must not trace the heaven back to the current state, it must be linked to an event in the past. At this point the main error is to work forwards from a turning point to heaven or hell. It is critical to monitor the groups at this stage. The temptation to suggest a type of accident here has seduced many a consultant. If you have to suggest something then create an example if a different field and ban its use.

Next, connect Hell to a past event with fictional events

The process is repeated for hell. The path may lead to a different event than the heaven path. The group may be asked to produce 2 indicators that illustrate they are on a path to heaven and 2 indicators that illustrate their on a path to hell.

This can be run in parallel with the above step if time is running short.

When all the groups have completed their charts, a spokesperson may be elected from each group. They will then be asked to stay at their charts while the rest of the group circulates around the work area to look at other groups’ Future-Backwards creations. The spokesperson from each group will then explain their group’s perspective to the circulating groups.

This allows for the various perspectives between groups to become apparent. The acknowledgement of differences in perspective aid in the process of conflict resolution.

Do's and Dont's

  • It would be great if you can divide groups by differences which would amplify contrasts. Also if you had similar sub-group teams (ie. 4 teams of perspective A, 4 teams of perspective B, ... 4 teams of perspective E) then you can get the team rotations to view other models in contrast to theirs in a coordinated and most comprehensive way.

  • Reporting out is a challenge however I would be tempted to give each team a form to complete when contrasting models. If possible I would try get a small group of participants help you collate / cluster all the input to be able to debrief to the entire group. Would suggest an open mic at that point with a strict time limit.

  • All of the models could yield a powerful artefact at the end of the session so I would think through how to capture this.

  • It will be tough to enforce the rules of the method with only a couple facilitators. Best if you had a team of subfacilitators to manage (a larger-sized) group. However if getting facilitation support is not possible I would be as firm as you can with the rules and hopefully with 2 or 3 people assisting you'll be able to hold the structure of the exercise.

  • Common bad practice is to suggest examples to the group.