Tool: Future Backwards

The following is a team activity that can replace planning and retrospectives all at once. We absolutely adore this method! It was created by Dave Snowden, and you can read a robust how-to at this link, but a simpler version is below.

As far as facilitation, know...

  • That this session is cognitively challenging. It's a thinker! But it's also easy to facilitate, so you can run the show and participate at the same time.

  • It will bring up some "bad stuff" that needs discussing – so be prepared as a leader or facilitator to discuss this "stuff."

  • It gets easier the more you do it, and teams will want to do it again in the future.

  • You will develop your own way of facilitating it, so don't be afraid to bend the rules if you want to!

Think of this less as a tool to generate "things to go do" and more of a tool that helps teams create vivid, sticky shared intelligence about what they want for the future. We've found that even if nothing is done with the output of the session, simply doing the session will generate better outcomes for the team. They'll end up doing more of the stuff they want, and less of the stuff they don't want, than if they hadn't done the session at all.

  • Best for: Annual or quarterly planning. Scales well to large teams, but a good tip is to divide the group up when it gets >20 people – compare results at the end!

  • Prerequisites: None

  • Tools: These hexagonal sticky notes were designed for this exercise, and they really do help! Otherwise, regular sticky notes or even a Miro/Mural board will work.

  • Total time: 1-2 hours

1. Describe the current state (Timing: 5-10 minutes)

As a full group, discuss and write down descriptions that summarize the current state of affairs. Each of these descriptions should be written on a single sticky note. Shooting for 5-7 sticky notes in total, but you'll usually end up with more.

Push the team to vividly describe the situation, rather than using "typical workshop shorthand." Pushing them in this first step will help later on.

2. Describe key events from the past (Timing: 5-10 minutes)

As a group, discuss the most significant event in the immediate past which shaped the current state, and describe it on a single sticky note. Put it next to the current state cluster, and repeat, working backwards in time. You're looking for a single stream leading to today. Try not to jump backward to earlier events – you're looking for what happened, in order.

  • The team will ask "how far back in the past?" It doesn't really matter – go as far back as you have time for.

  • The team will usually try to assign causal links. This isn't really necessary. Just try for chronological order, if you can.

3. Describe Utopia (Timing: 5-10 minutes)

Imagine, discuss, and write down an IMPOSSIBLY good future. Again, you're looking for 5-7 sticky notes.

You're not looking for “best possible”. You're looking for Impossibly Good. If anyone says something like, "a lot of things would need to change for this stuff to happen," you can respond with something to the effect of, "that's the point!"

4. Describe Dystopia (Timing: 5-10 minutes)

Repeat the process for an IMPOSSIBLY bad future.

5. Backward from Utopia (Timing: 10-15 minutes)

Now, make Utopia happen. Use fictional events to connect Utopia to a past event.

Do this the same way we did when we described the past – working backward without skipping too far.

  • Some teams will want to start with a single "thing" from the future and work directly back from there. Other teams will want to be more general. Both approaches work.

  • It's usually pretty challenging for teams to think of "the stuff" in this phase. You'll probably see a lot of thinking faces and not a lot of output for at least 1-5 minutes. Don't panic! Give people time to noodle.

6. Backward from Dystopia (Timing: 10-15 minutes)

Repeat the process for Dystopia – use fictional events to connect it to a past event.

7. Discuss (Timing: 10-45 minutes)

You usually won't need a rigorous discussion guide or set of facilitation prompts for this – the reflections will spill out of the team. But definitely give yourself time to reflect on what's on the board!

  • What did you notice?

  • What surprised you?

  • What do you feel about what's on the board?

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