Futurespectives, like Retrospectives, look back at the past… from the future!
I find them very useful when there isn’t much to retrospect on: at the start of a project or initiative. I’ve run them for myself, for other individuals, and for groups of up to a hundred individuals, so it’s pretty flexible.
In a futurespective, we imagine that we’re in the future, and we look back to the past. Here’s the quick outline of what I do:
- Set the scene and create a timeline
- No explicit safety check (use common sense)
- Step forward into the future
- Look back at the past negatively (skip to positive if short on time)
- State interrupt – break the mood!
- Step forward into the future again
- Look back at the past positively
- Create actions.
There’s some notes at the end too.
Set the scene
Imagine that the thing you’ve started has reached some kind of conclusion.
How long did that take? It could be the first project release, or the first time the team move onto something new, or the first time someone realizes that what they were trying to do has worked (or not).
I like to ask the people in the room, but if they don’t have experience, I’ll use mine or refer to other people’s. Futurespectives work well when the timeline is of the order of months or years (though I’ve done them with just days before!)
When we’ve decided what boundary of time we’re going to use, make post-its for any known or proposed events like release dates, deadlines, etc.. Tangential events which help people to imagine where they are in time are also useful, like the office Christmas party, or the rough date a team-member’s baby is due, or the start of school summer holidays.
The team can add any events they know of to this timeline.
No explicit safety check (use common sense)
Most of the time when I run this session, it’s because something highly uncertain is about to happen, often with people who aren’t used to working together. Asking whether people feel safe to share their opinions is less useful than encouraging them to be creative… particularly in the “negative” run-through!
Make sure you position the “negative” run-through as something of a ritual, so that people feel safe to make suggestions. I tell people that if the worst thing that happens is that a meteor hits the building, then that’s what happens.
Step forward into the future
I ask people to stand up and gather in a group at the start of the timeline, then walk with me as we progress through to the future. I talk about things that are happening as we move; any events that are occurring, the changes in the season, and events like Hallowe’en or that late blast of sunshine that we always get at the end of September; anything which reaches out to the imagination.
At the end of the timeline, we turn and look back.
Most of the times I’ve done this, there hasn’t really been enough room for everyone to traverse the whole timeline from start to finish; they get to shuffle along a little bit behind you while you lead the way. Remember to move past the end so that you give the group as much space as possible! The most important thing is that they aren’t standing where they started, and have moved to somewhere else.
This means that when they look back on the timeline, they will be able to correlate that movement more easily with the shift in time as well, helping them to imagine what happens next (or before).
Look back at the past negatively (skip to positive if short on time)
I like to make the first run-through the negative one, because then we end on a positive note. This one can also be quite funny.
I tell them, “Look back on the previous years / months since <date>. Wasn’t that just the most awful time you’ve ever had, ever? Everything went wrong.” Then I describe all the symptoms of it going wrong – people quitting, blaming each other, stealing the milk… whatever you can think of. I talk about my own role, too, with phrases like, “nobody is even speaking to that consultant you hired back in January!” or “that facilitator just didn’t help at all!”
I encourage people to be absolutely outrageous – in one organization Boris Johnson became the company Chairman; another large national company was reduced to less than 100 staff members because of the high turnover; quotes from “Office Space” and other parodies get scattered around liberally.
The outrageous ideas provide a container in which people can post dangerous ideas; things that might actually be a bit likely, but which would be taboo to suggest in a serious manner. We don’t ever discuss the negative things, so this is OK. Lots of elephants may emerge in the room. We’ll deal with them positively, later.
Ideas go onto post-its and those go up on the board. Ask your attendees to put any continuous events at the point at which they first noticed them happening.
I like to use pink post-its for bad things (and green or yellow for good things later), but I also put them below a particular line, leaving space between the negative ideas and the timeline above it for positive ideas (or you could have the timeline in the middle if you can make it visible enough).
As a guide for the space to leave, the positive ideas should be at or slightly above eye-level, and we normally use 1 or 2 feet (30 to 60 cm) of wall-space for each run-through, depending on how many people are involved and how long we can make the timeline in the space available.
State interrupt – break the mood!
I ask people something like, “Who’s a cat person here, and who’s a dog person?” or, “What’s your favourite film?” I often ask them why they think I asked that question, and they usually guess correctly that it’s to break the sad mood of the previous run.
Step forward into the future again
We repeat the previous walk-through, gathering at the beginning and walking back through to the future, with the same events (which is why the timeline should be of proposed or known events rather than imagined ones).
Look back at the past positively
I tell them, “Look back on the previous years / months since <date>. Wasn’t that just amazing? Look at all the awesome stuff that happened! All those risks we identified back in <this month>… none of them materialized. We managed to mitigate or minimize every single one! So many good things have happened! So many wonderful things! So what are they? What happened?”
Ask attendees to put the ideas onto post-its, and put them on the wall once more.
De-dupe any of the positive events, moving them to the earlier dates if possible.
Ask the attendees to dot-vote on the events that are “most important, and least likely to happen without intervention”.
There are important events that will happen anyway, and unimportant events that people can work around. We want the events that are most risky; the things that really need to happen, but perhaps haven’t been started yet because people don’t know how.
These are often things that will only happen when people learn by trying them, so getting started is the important thing to do. This just gets people started.
Note that some of these may be the elephants in the room, but we’ve turned them into positive outcomes (see also Mike Burrows’ / Agendashift’s 15-minute FOTO if you want another excellent way to do this!)
If anyone can make a difference to the events, or try something out which might help with them, they can volunteer for actions.
It’s highly likely that some of the events require sponsorship, authority or assistance from people outside the room. If you as a coach or consultant are in a position to help with those, you can go ahead and take the actions yourself.
Otherwise, ask if people know who to talk to. The action to take is then at least to have a conversation with that person.
Don’t create actions for people who aren’t in the room or don’t want to own them! That’s a really great way to waste post-it notes.
As long as some of the actions get taken up, and a bit of change happens, the futurespective was worth it. Change creates a new context, in which change has already been successful, which can make future changes easier and more likely to be attempted. In those situations the actions should be safe-to-fail probes. Simple conversations ought to be safe-to-fail (and if they weren’t, that’s useful information to have anyway).
It’s often the case that the red post-its pile up at the end of the timeline, while the green ones are clustered near the beginning; we need to act now to prevent problems later. If that happens, it’s worth drawing attention to it.
I sometimes get asked if we’re going to talk about the red ones. I explain that they’re only there to generate the green ones, but that if they want to, they can create a green one that’s an exact negative (“Boris Johnson does not become our chairman!”) and we can vote on that and talk about how to make sure it happens.
(In that positive timeline, he actually emigrated to Australia. I liked the imaginative creativity of that group very much.)