Backwards and forward

May 20, 2009

Although I have been working with Cognitive Edge techniques for the last 5 years, I have never had an opportunity to use Future Backwards. A week ago, my first opportunity came along. My client was a Faculty in a university which was reviewing its operations. The Co-chairs responsible for reviewing governance and management, came to me with a competent but conservative plan to seek the views of the staff. I did some fast talking, and convinced them that FB was the way to go. ‘How many staff do you expected to come?’ I enquired casually as they were leaving. I expected the number to be around 25, similar to other reviews I have assisted them with. ‘Around 70’, they said, causing me to blanche momentarily. I hadn’t wanted my first foray into FB to be quite such a big, public event. It had better work!

I needn’t have worried. The process description on the website is very clear, and I thought back through the mists of time to 4 years ago when I had experienced it as a participant. It’s a robust process which builds up interest and momentum right from the start. Before long, they were all participating in vigorous discussion of the ‘Current State’ and the process began to unfold.

Here I am going to make a confession. Dave Snowden always says ‘Follow the CE processes exactly as they are designed. Don’t mess with them!’ One bit I felt inclined to leave out was allowing an ‘accident/stroke of luck’ when tracing the backwards paths from Heaven and Hell. That all seems too complicated, I thought, when this is my first time running FB. However, I rather begrudgingly decided to follow the recommended format, at least this time round.

Well, as fate would have it, the ‘accident’ element produced one of the most powerful insights from the session. When groups were tracing a path back from ‘Heaven’ to the current state, they found that they had to invent really big, spectacularly unlikely events, to help them go from where they are now, to the perfect future that they had imagined. However, when they traced the path back from ‘Hell’ several of the groups decided that they didn’t need to use the ‘accident’ device at all. They realised they were already well on the road to hell and would reach it naturally without any further assistance! There was recognition across the group that the ‘status quo’ was no longer an option. This was a very powerful conclusion for a pretty conservative group of people to come to. Most importantly, it came from them, not from management ‘on high’ and I expect will provide a powerful impetus for change as the review moves forward.

All in all, a very satisfying first contact with Future Backwards.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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