Formulating Your Story Using Backcasting and the Futures Wheel

As human beings, we love stories. Before we could write, we were making up and passing down stories through the generations about our societies and how we came to be. In so many ways, Future Studies taps into this tradition by encouraging us to develop our own stories of the future.

So you’ve analysed your trends and you have an idea of where the future may going. But remember, Future Studies is not about trying to identify one future. It’s about trying to identify possible, probable and preferable futures. That means you need to think about the storylines that describe how each of those futures came about. These stories will form the basis of the scenarios that you develop.

But, like any writer will tell you, you can’t just sit down and start writing without having some idea of where your story is going and who its main protagonists are. Future Studies has a few tools to help you develop your stories. Here are two …

1. Backcasting

Backcasting is a simple technique and its one that you have probably often made use of already, without attaching the label “backcasting” to it.

In essence, you need to develop an idea, or vision if you will, of what your preferred future looks like. You’re not “futurecasting” and simply extrapolating current trends, you’re looking at a different view or vision of the future and trying to work out how you get there.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve done this a few times, usually while at work and staring out the window. On a personal level, this is what my preferred future would look like:

I would spend my days in my well-stocked library reading and writing about ideas that come to me on topics that I find interesting (like Future Studies). Beneath my library would be a wine cellar and I would spend my afternoons sipping on a very quaffable red wine while I chatted to people about my ideas and what I was currently writing about.

For a start-up company, the vision could be a simple one, like in 10 years’ time our turnover will be in excess of $50 million, for example.

It’s all well and good having these fantastic ideas. The questions that you’re trying to answer with backcasting are:

  1. How far are you looking back? (Remember my guidance of last week to no look no more than 20 years ahead)
  2. How did we get here?
  3. What decisions did we need to make?
  4. What policies did we need to implement?
  5. What are the possible hurdles to achieving your vision?
  6. How did you get around those possible hurdles?

But most importantly: how does this vision tie in with the trends that we’ve identified? Is your vision congruent with the trends identified?

Hopefully the megatrend of environmental degradation won’t interfere with my supply of wine too much. That would be a tragedy!

I’ve found that backcasting works really well when you get people together and do some brainstorming in a group. If you want to see really interesting results (and you have a big enough group of people), break the people up into groups and get the groups to backcast their preferred vision for the organisation and then compare the results of the different groups.

Like any group work, there may be some ideas surfaced that are, um, left of field.  Regardless of how wacky the ideas are, when doing the first round of getting ideas you should write all the ideas down. You can always trim back the ideas during the consolidation phase. But it may be worthwhile keeping some wacky ideas around!

At the same time that you’re conducting this analysis I have found that it’s really important to have a way of recording the ideas of how you’re going to reach your vision. I’ve found there is nothing better than a big white board on which you can track all of the ideas. An alternative way is to use different post-it notes with each colour post-it note being used to identify an opportunity or threat to your vision, for example.

Remember that these ideas then need to be consolidated into a storyline that is going to explain how you achieved your vision.

2. The Futures Wheel

A Futures Wheel is a good way to map ideas, generate ideas and identifying issues and sub-issues for any trends that you are investigating and researching.  The basic idea behind a Futures Wheel is that is allows you to focus on a possible future event by placing it at the centre of your workspace and then link possible consequences off of it. You should ideally prepare a Futures Wheel for each trend you’re working on.

There are three basic steps to putting together a Futures Wheel:

  1. start with the idea you want to explore;
  2. draw relevant ideas around it in circles connected to your main idea; and
  3. add further ideas in circles and draw connecting lines

Typically a Futures Wheel, like backcasting, can be put together as part of a group exercise to make sure that you surface as many relevant ideas as possible. Bearing in mind that the role of the group is to surface ideas, I think it’s important (as with backcasting) not to criticise ideas initially and that they should just be written down. Once all the possible ideas have been surfaced during the group discussion they can then be pared back.

3. Turning Ideas into Systems

So we’ve covered how to construct your stories of the preferable futures. But what kind of systems will you need to produce to construct your preferred future? Next week I will be discussing Systems Thinking, which is a really useful tool for thinking about the systems and processes in your organisation and how they work together to ensure success.

Thought from the Lifeguard’s Hut

Learn from history, but do not identify it as the limits of reality

– Alan Cohen

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