Futurespective - Identifying the path to good

In this post I talk about one of my favorite futurespective techniques, the Future-Backwards and how you can utilise it effectively to quickly identify the ‘Path to Good’.

Jeff Inman

In modern iterative ways of working, a restrospective is an Agile ceremony performed generally at the end of a sprint (or iteration). While there are thousands of ways to facilitate a retrospective, the purpose remains the same; to reflect back on or ‘retrospectively’ at our work and identify ways to improve moving forward.

These techniques can also be used at the beginning of an iteration where instead of looking back, you start by forming goals and visions, and explore pivotal factors and ways of achieving these; hence the name Futurespective.

This type of thinking has opened the door for teams and projects to quickly identify robust strategies and roadmaps, while increasing velocity, collaboration and alignment across the organisation.


The Future-Backwards

One of the most impactful and useful futurespective tools is an exercise called the Future-Backwards. Running a successful Future-Backwards quickly reveals the journey, roadmap and path to good.

The Future-Backwards is a short, effective exercise that works across all types of industries, teams and problems, and can be done with a broad or refined focus (e.g. Organisation or Team level), by answering six simple questions in a specific order:

  • What is our current state?
  • What key things got us here?
  • What does Future Good look like?
  • What makes up the path to Future Good?
  • What does Future Bad look like?
  • What actions would get us to Future Bad?


The outputs of this exercise are the foundations of a strategic roadmap or backlog of tasks and initiatives; ensuring we deliver on the right thing while providing a clear, aligned collaborative journey and path for uplift.


Context Pillars – Stimulating ideas and participation with the audience

Critical to the success of a Future-Backwards is the audience participation, particularly when the facilitator may have little or no business context. The idea is to capture the entire picture and not get stuck on one area, such as technology, while missing another, such as communication, which may also impact the current and future states.

In summary, context pillars are the high level categories/areas we should explore with the group relative to the business problem. For example, a business problem could be:

  • Company looking to undertake a DevOps transformation/maturity uplift
  • Client looking to explore migrating their data centre to the Cloud
  • Service based business looking to reduce the amount of admin burden in their processes
  • Software Development team looking to realise Continuous Delivery
  • Environments and Platforms team hindered by highly coupled-monolithic Architecture

Using context pillars to probe the group while ideating is key to getting great outputs and identifying all the factors that do and will affect the outcome of the business problem. Whilst at a high level two problems may sound the same, key elements a layer beneath could be entirely different. Context pillars equip facilitators with the ability to quickly probe the group to discovery.

Here’s are some of the common context pillars I use regularly:


Running a Future-Backwards

Now that we know about context pillars and the six questions we are looking to answer, it’s time to talk about running the session.


Group Size – 6-12 people (split if large group)

As the exercise is generally run in a team, the number can range from 5 and above. If your team is only 3 or 4 members that’s fine, but I’d recommend inviting members from a similar shaped team as their inputs could be valuable. Further it can help remove silos between teams and/or demonstrate shared strategic alignment.

If however, the group is above 12, start breaking it down into smaller groups who will complete the exercise in parallel. You can then simply combine all outputs at the end of the session.

The Future-Backwards also works well right up to C-Suite level with multiple streams all participating. The size and participants of the group really depends on the business context; if the exercise is being run in an Agile Scrum team then the appropriate audience is likely the Delivery team, the product manager and their internal business customers. Where the business context is much broader and strategic (covering multiple parts of the organisation), all impacted parties should be involved.


Primary Directive (5mins)

The Primary Directive is a statement that helps drive people into a collaborative mindset. It’s a belief that the team must hold during the activities to follow and set the stage for impactful collaboration.

“Hope and confidence come from proper involvement and a willingness to predict the unpredictable. We will fully engage on this opportunity to unite around an inclusive vision, and join hands in constructing a shared future.”

– Paulo Caroli and TC Caetano http://www.funretrospectives.com/the-futurospective-prime-directive/

Much like a retrospective it’s a good idea to set a primary directive, particularly if working at the coal face with a Delivery team. As we’re looking forward, not backwards (i.e. a retrospective), the primary directive should be forward thinking. It should also focus on constructive input and limit finger pointing - we all want a good outcome in the end.


Setting the Stage – Acknowledge the Problem and Opportunity (5mins)

When introducing the Future-Backwards explain the purpose of the exercise but avoid going into details around the process as this could influence people’s ideas and feedback.

It’s also important that everyone in the room is aligned on the problem. To achieve this, discuss and agree on the value stream or business problem in question.

A value stream is the agreed start and end point and scope for the exercise. For example, a value stream could be: customer features from ideation to delivery in production or the through-put of a social media team. Understanding the business context is important as this will identify the appropriate Context Pillars and ensure the session is successful.


Start with the As-Is (5-10mins)

Ask the group to think about the current state and start writing down observations, one per Post-it, anything that comes to mind.

If using an electronic collaboration solution such as Miro, share the observations with the group as they are received. For the old school types utilising a whiteboard and physical post-it notes, ask the group to hand you their notes for placement on the wall and use this opportunity to share; sharing observations will likely stimulate thought within the room. Alternatively, if dealing with a large or multiple groups, have each user place the notes as they write them, visit each team’s outputs and share any interesting observations.

As the group is writing, consider your context pillars to stimulate further thought, ask the group to think about each one as time progresses. If the responses focus on one problem, ask about another area of context to shift the thinking.

Having many of the same ideas is a good thing! If there seems to be a trend and multiple observations are similar, group them together, this shows the group that they are aligned, particularly valuable when dealing with internal and constraining politics. Use your context pillars if you need to shift the observations.


Define How We Got Here (5mins)



Next ask the group to reflect on key milestones or events in time that got them to the current state. This could be anything from a company restructure, certain technology decisions, a new CEO, really anything!

Use context pillars if outputs are slow.


Choose your own adventure: Future Good or Bad?

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that they only need to define one path; to Good or Bad, and the other will simply be the reverse. For example, if a Future Bad observation states ‘poor communication between teams’, then does Future Good equate to highly engaged communicative teams? While that seems accurate at first, an important observation I’ve made is that depending on the sentiment of the people in the room, one of these paths will end up with a lot more observations then the other. Don’t try guess the room, complete both paths!


Define Future Good (5-10mins)



After we’ve defined our current state and what got us there, it’s time to think about what Future Good looks like. With no constraints on budget, time, people, technology, ask the group to think about “what good looks like” to them.

Remember your context pillars when completing all parts of the Future-Backwards!


What will get us to Good (5mins)



Now that the group has defined what good looks like, ask them to compare Future Good with the current state and think about the path between the two. Ask them to note anything that will need to occur for them to get to Good.


Define Future Bad (5-10mins)



Now it’s time to focus on the negatives. What does the worst case scenario look like? Get the group to list their observations on what Future Bad looks like.


What will get us to Bad (5mins)



As done with the “Path to Good”, it’s time for the group to define what will get us to Future Bad by comparing the current state and Future Bad and noting anything that will influence us down that path.


Wrap up

It’s always a great idea to reflect on the outputs of the session and some of the key observations made from the group across the various aspects of a Future-Backwards. Share with the group some of the noticeable trends and where shared alignment exist on the Path to Good.

The outputs will generally be large, so you may need time to consolidate and digitise the information. Summarising and visualising the information will ensure the ideas are clear and transparent and help with the next steps.


What’s next?

The key to remember is that the items within the Path to Good are key initiatives and actions that need to be taken to realise Good. I’ve personally used this exercise at the inception of many software delivery and product teams to quickly realise our roadmap and start delivering rapidly on the most impactful priorities.

Take the time to digest and review the outputs from the Future-Backwards session, book another session if required, agree on the way forward, assign accountability and start delivering!