Future Backwards

A game for determining next steps towards a desired outcome.

Inventor and where I learnt the game

I learnt this game while attending the 4 day Cynefin and Sense making course with Dave Snowden and Tony Quinlan in London in November 2015.

I am not sure if they were the creators of this game, but I would reference them in any literature.

Reason for the game and expected outcomes

Planning forwards allows us to create a narrative based on our experience, but it also includes our bias and prejudices. Looking for a future desired state and then doing a gap analysis suffers from the same problem.

This game allows us to take a complex problem, and understand the many factors around it and to construct a vision of the system by its events that is not causal in nature and therefore not subject to narrative bias.

The outcome of the game is that participants will understand a complex situation and system much more, and be able to guide events towards a desired outcome and away from an undesired one.

The game is based upon group think, and gives a shared view of a complex problem.


  • Long space to stick hexagonal post-its (we used 3 sheets of flip chart paper stuck together).
  • Different coloured hexagonal post-it notes.
  • Markers to write on post-its.
  • Some sort of timer for time-boxed measurement.

How to play

Ideally, there will be enough people to break into at least 3 groups with a few people in each group. Each group will not work together or share ideas at this stage.

Have each group construct a long sheet of paper from flip board paper, perhaps 2 sheets lengthways and tape these together.

(Alternative: you could use a wall or whiteboard or even just a long table). You don’t need to write on the sheets. It’s important to allow enough space so that each group is not influenced by the other groups.

In a short timeframe, perhaps 5 mins max, have each group write as many things about the current state down. One per hexagonal post-it. They must all be on the same colour.

Stick the post-its about 2/3 of the way from the left-hand side. (Red in the drawing).

When the timebox is up, have the groups find the most significant recent event that preceded the current state. Have them write this on a different colour.

Note: This is really important to emphasise, do not allow the groups to find causality. They must not construct a forward story.

Given them about 3 mins to find one.

Next ask them to do it again, keep with the same colour, but this time, keep finding the most significant recent event before the one they put down. Do this for about 10 more mins. (Green in the drawing).

When the time box is up, ask them to now write on a different colour, the worst possible scenario state in the future. This is the hell situation! Put these on the far right at the bottom. Again a small time box, perhaps 5 mins. (Light blue in the drawing).

Do the same thing above in the top right-hand corner, but now with the most amazing outcome. Allow the participants to feel they can remove all constraints and not to limit how good it can be. This can be a different colour; in the drawing it is light blue. (See photo for example). This is the heaven situation!

Now have the groups do the same exercise as before, only this time, it is from the hell scenario backwards, and then from the heaven scenario backwards.

Note: Again, don’t allow the participants to plan forwards. There is a temptation to try to start with the current state and map forwards to each future state. This is not allowed! No causality.

There is also a tendency to try to join the backwards event discovery to the current state. Tell the participants to allow the past events to go back in time if needed, they don’t need to map into the present.

After a short timeframe, stop the exercise.

You can end the exercise here. The discovery process will have given the participants a real collective appreciation of the problem at hand and where they might focus their efforts next.

If you want to. You can now do a few rounds, where one person from each group, stays with the board, and the others rotate around to the next table or position. The remaining person explains the board and gets feedback from each travelling party.

At the end, the person who has stayed, explains the feedback to the original participants who created the board.

This gives alternative viewpoints and commonalities across the group.

Tip: Don’t mix the role types up into the groups to start with. Especially if you have senior and not so senior people playing, otherwise the ideas become too homogenised and too along the usual corporate lines.

It may be surprising how different groups see the events and give insight into the way groups see the organisation and the problems faced.

2 thoughts on “Future Backwards”

  1. Pingback: Facilitating Systems Innovation IV – Untangled

  2. This is very similar to Luke Hohmann’s Innovation Game entitled “Remember the Future”. It is explained in detail in Luke’s book “Innovation Games”

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