Future backwards

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List of methods / Generic sense-making

The Future Backwards method was developed as a planning support method. It has also been effective for lessons learnt, historical analysis, context setting and a range of other uses. It is one of a series of side-casting techniques. The core of the method is to expose the large number of perspectives that a group can take on any given issue or theme at a single point in time.


The Future Backwards method is one of the primary workshop tools within Cognitive Edge — and one of the most popular. It was developed initially as as an alternative to scenario planning. It's an effective alternative because it increases the number of perspectives that a group can take, when it comes both to understanding their past and to seeing the range of possible futures.

Thus it can be used to:

  • discover what entrained patterns of past perception in an organisation are determining its future
  • compare and contrast different aspirations as to the present and the future
  • generate multiple turning points or decision points for use in the social construction of the Cynefin® framework
  • generate or prompt for anecdotes, to lead into mapping and many other purposes.

If the instructions are followed, it is easy for participants to understand and generates considerable energy within a group. Future Backwards can be delivered at varying depths of detail and duration, taking from as little as an hour to as long as half a day to complete (obviously with different levels of processing and detail).

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Method card material

This material will be extracted for the method cards

Possible symbols or illustrations

Front page description

Tweet length

Back of card summary

Text limit to come but this should be a simple summary of the key stages or aspects


A key early decision is if you are using the method on multiple groups (to compare different outputs) or with one group. It is preferable to do a comparison between groups. Multiple groups do not have to carry out the process on the same day, however they must not see each others' results. Check in advance that there's enough wall or table space available for the number of groups and size of hexies you'll be working with.

Hexies should be used as follows:

If you have seven colours

  • Current State (CS)
  • Turning points backwards from CS
  • Utopia
  • Dystopia
  • Turning points backwards from Utopia
  • Turning points backwards from Dystopia
  • Accidents on Dystopian or Utopian pathway

More restricted case

  • Current state
  • Turning points backwards from CS, Utopia and Dystopia
  • Utopia & Dystopia (marked)
  • Accidents

In designing the session a practitioner must 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
  2. On what basis will the groups compare/contrast their products – real-time in the same workshop, in multiple workshops over time and space

In preparing for the session a practitioner should check:

  1. Teams must not be shown prior products before they have an opportunity to create their own as this patterns their thinking
  2. Butcher paper is placed along a long wall (3 strips) to provide plenty of space for at least 10 people to comfortably post & discuss hexagons
  3. A key is placed on the wall that illustrates what each hexagon represents
  4. Pens and hexies are provided


  • Warn participants that the process requires them to go through a series of stages without knowledge of the outcome until the process is finished
  • Ensure that participants understand why they are conducting the exercise (even though you’re not specific about the outcome they will create) – e.g. to contrast perspectives on the past, or to identify decision points etc.
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 on a hexie and place the hexies 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 hexie 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. A grouping of 5 to 7 hexies is good. The number is not critical, but too few leads to fixation on current issues and too many tends to identify minor issues.
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 hexie to be placed to the left of the CS cluster. They should keep working backwards in time. Make it very clear that this is a single track backwards from the CS cluster, not from each CS item.

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.

It is important that events are added chronologically working back in time. It is very common for groups to think of an earlier event and put a hexie for it off the left. Try to head this off by repeating that they are to list events right to left by occurrence in time. One metaphor that can be helpful is to introduce the idea of looking in a rear view mirror. You can see the current state in front of you, and you can see only the most recent key event in the rear view mirror. Once you've agreed on that most recent key event, you get to reverse the car to that event. Now you can see only the key event prior to that in the rear view mirror.

Knowing how far back in time to go is a judgement call. A newly formed group may simply not be able to go back in time very far. An organization with a rich history may go back decades or longer. Generally it's better to have a longer line of events.

Another common issue is to try to identify causal links between the events, as in "This caused that." That is not the intent. It may well be that one event is causal to another, but the intent is that they be chronological.

Next, describe Utopia

Each group is then asked to imagine an IMPOSSIBLY good future (Utopia) and describe the conditions/experience of Utopia 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 Utopias and Dystopias, 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’.

As with the CS description, roughly 5 to 7 hexies is recommended.

Next, describe Dystopia

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.

Depending on cultural sensitivities you can also use Heaven and Hell as an alternative to Utopia and Dystopia.

As with the CS description, roughly 5 to 7 hexies is recommended.

Next, connect Utopia to a past event with fictional events

Each group is then asked to make Utopia 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 Utopia 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 Utopia or Dystopia. 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 from a different field and ban its use.

Next, connect Dystopia to a past event with fictional events

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

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.

If there are multiple groups in the same room they all rotate through as many of the other groups as time allows. As a courtesy, the spokeperson can be rotated so they get a chance to see other groups' results.

It can help groups if you ask them to observe each of the other charts and consider:

  • What is different?
  • What is the same?
  • What is surprising or interesting?
This allows for the various perspectives between groups to become apparent. The acknowledgement of differences in perspective aid in the process of conflict resolution.

It is often during this review that groups who have been in conflict realize that they see the overall system very similarly and have the same end state objectives. Of course, the opposite can be true as well. In both cases, the development of the chart helps people be more open to possibilities and less biased towards one solution or scenario.

Dos and Don'ts

  • It is great if you can divide groups by differences, which maximises groupthink and so amplifies the 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. Some participants may feel that the instructions are too ambiguous and ask for examples. It's best to tell them that you will not provide examples.
  • Insight can come from unexpected sources. In one exercise we had a group of Summer interns and multiple groups of longer term employees. I was concerned that the interns would not have sufficient experience or history to create a useful chart and would not be able to contribute. In actuality, they created one of the best Future Backwards charts I've ever seen and it was clear that they had observed a lot in their short time in the group.

In a virtual environment

The method has been conducted in virtual settings with success over a range of platforms.

See also Virtual facilitation

Supporting Theory

Telling a story backwards increases cognitive load. When describing a Utopia and a Dystopia, by stretching the participants' imagination to go beyond best or worst possible, they extend their scanning.