Future backwards

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


The Future Backwards method is one of the primary workshop tools within Cognitive Edge and one of the most popular. Developed initially as as an alternative to scenario planning by increasing the number of perspectives that a group can take both on an understanding of their past, and of 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 the group. It can be delivered at varying depths of detail and duration, taking from an hour to half a day to complete (obviously with different levels of processing and detail).


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. Wall space or tables depending on the size of hexies in use should be checked in advance.

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.

3. Teams must not be shown prior products before they have an opportunity to create their own as this patterns their thinking.

4. 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

5. A key is placed on the wall that illustrates what each hexagon represents

6. Pens and hexies are provided


Warn that the process requires them to go through a series of stages without knowledge of the outcome until the process is finished. Ensure the 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 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 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’.

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. Make it very clear that this is a single track backwards from the CS cluster, not from each CS item.

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

In a virtual environment

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

See also Virtual facilitation