Reflections on The Future, Backwards

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Wednesday’s session of The Future, Backwards was great. I played uber-facilitator, racing between the 8 separate groups, while Anne, Dick, Sally and Meg worked with two groups each more closely. That seemed to work pretty well – I walked miles, helped steer and got to see 4 distinctly different styles of facilitation taking place. And, as is always the case, we all sat back afterwards and said “I realise that I should have said X when I said Y…”

But some overall thoughts about the process:

  • Only one step at a time.
    It’s crucial to give people only small steps at each point. If they know what’s coming up, some of them will start the next part in order to avoid what’s being asked of them right now. Too many possibilities at one moment confuses some and can split the group at crucial moments. (I recall one that I participated in where everyone was given the whole instruction for the model at the start. One person sat out of the group and started writing elements of heaven and hell, another went off with a colleague to debate the starting point of the history, etc, etc.)

  • Keep your groups close.
    If you’re a single facilitator handling multiple groups, make sure they’re close to each other. Obvious, I know, but worth repeating. And make sure that you’ve got somewhere that you can sit and catch your breath for 10 seconds out of sight of your groups, but where you can listen in.

  • Aim for energy, not completeness.
    The finish of a stage is determined by the energy levels of participants, not whether they’ve got everything in the model. They never can – there will always be something that someone thinks of later – but it’s more important to move them on to the next stage as you feel people’s energy levels drop. Once they’re drained because they’ve kept going to the bitter end, they’ll find it really difficult to pick up the pace and enthusiasm again.

  • Get facilitation support.
    It’s useful to have someone else looking in every so often, so that if your way of explaining something isn’t working with the group, there’s someone to offer an alternative.

  • Put like with like.
    Don’t mix the groups up for this exercise. I did once – we ended up with a bland model that repeated back all the standard strategic talk, which was pointless. Put them in the most tightly-knit groups you can – so particular specialists sit together, long-serving people are together, etc. You’re looking to get their worldview out as clearly as possible – so that others can see and understand the differences.

  • Perfect your enigmatic smile.
    There’ll always be someone in each group that keeps appealing to the authority in the room – you – for how this exercise should be done, or what comes next, or why what someone else just did was wrong. Smile at them. Say nothing. Irritates the hell out of them.

  • Correct early, then step back.
    Be clear and, when necessary, corrective early on in the exercise. Particularly in putting down hexies – if they spread them out at the Present, pick a couple off, hand them back and indicate where they need to go. Similarly, if their Past timeline is broad, not long, pick up the first couple as they go down and re-position them. Then leave it – if you catch it before they get into a pattern and give them a clearer one, they’ll usually follow it.
  • Release the rapporteurs.
    Once the initial groups have seen each other’s models, encourage someone to go and replace the original rapporteur. We found most rapporteurs found a way to slip away and look at everyone else’s, but one was adamant that she had been told to stay, so would. It made it difficult for what came next, as there was a lack of seeing others’ perspectives.

  • Challenge the future possibilities.
    When they’re building the “impossibly good/bad future”, many groups tend to produce what they think is achievable. I probably shouldn’t intrude too much on the process, but I do tend to challenge at that point – “is that really as good/bad as you can imagine?” Sometimes it is – I recall one group I worked with a couple of years ago, for whom there Impossibly Bad Future was 2/3rds full of hexies that started “Still doing…”. I congratulated them afterwards – they were clearly 2/3rds of the way to Hell already…

One piece that proved more difficult than I’ve seen previously, and I don’t think we’ve got enough answers to is this:

  • Not enough specifics in the future timelines.
    When working back from Heaven and Hell (or Doomsday and the Golden Age or…), we found people falling back onto great hairy generalisations and concepts. And into easy answers, rather than actions/decisions/events that might have preceded the last significant moment. It might be a reflection of the sector and groups we were working with, but I’d be intrigued to hear others’ thoughts about how you get participants to come up with actual events.