Backcasting – first, get clear on your vision of success…
Backcasting is a process of starting from a vision of success, then looking back to today to identify the most strategic steps to get achieve success. The process is described here, compared against forecasting or use of scenarios in planning processes, and examples of applications provided.
Many individuals, organistions and teams will start work with no clear, shared purpose. In every situation there is a way to get clear on an agreed vision of success to which all efforts can be directed. In fact, the more uncertain the future, the more likely your action are likely to influence or create that future, the more important if is to ‘backcast’.
Backcasting is used in this context to meaning “looking at the current situation from a future perspective”. After envisioning a successful result in this future scenario, you can then ask “what can we do today to reach that result”. This allows you to ensure that your actions and strategy are taking you in the direction you want to head. This may seem simple and obvious, but many people do not do it. It complements other perspectives used in business planning: scenario planning, forecasting, and action planning of next steps. The figure below is one representation of how these different concepts relate:
Backcasting is used to describe the future scenario you would like to head towards, and assess its feasibility. This is usually a long-term exercise, in terms of business planning – setting 1, 5 and 10 year goals. Because there is often greater uncertainty and less control over what may happen in longer time frames, the future vision may usefully be defined using principles rather than specifics. Backcasting is an opportunity to let go of the current reality for a moment and freely imagine what might be possible. A typical backcasting question is “How would you describe ‘wild success’ for yourself in 2012?“.
The description of ‘wild success’ may be in the form of principles, felt emotions, ‘SMART’ or ‘Well-designed’ goals or outcomes, a narrative story (download a pdf on these approaches to a vision well-designed-outcomes_updated), or even an image (e.g. visual facilitation, like this orthis).
Scenario planning is used to explore alternative futures. These scenarios usually have more specific detail than backcasting. You can characterize multiple scenarios, then explore the implications of these scenarios for enterprise profitability, personal satisfaction etc. This can commonly be seen when presenting ‘high, low and medium’ scenarios for sales, resources or the political and consumer context. A typical scenario planning trigger questions might be “What would happen to our business model if our sales were half, double or ten times what they are now?“
Forecasting is used to predict the most likely future. This is usually projected forward over coming weeks or months based on the past or present trends in things like performance and profitability. A typical forecasting question might be “Based on last year’s sales growth of 10%, what will our total sales be at the end of next year?“
Sometimes the only planning you want or need to do are figure out the ‘next steps’. Next steps are quite literally the next concrete actions to undertake. They are usually based on intuition, reacting to present circumstances, but also (hopefully) are still aligned with the future vision and direction. A normal next step question is “To make progress towards achieving our goal of helping 100 extra beneficiaries by 2008, what is the very next thing we have to do?“
Which to use for your circumstances?
Distinguishing between, and consciously engaging ALL these perspectives through any planning process is VERY important. Often individuals, organisations (or even society) can mistake one for the other. This can, for example, mean people artificially restrict what they imagine is possible in the future, forgetting the future is yet to be co-created! Or, it can mean people get obsessed with next actions without considering how aligned they are with what they ultimately want to achieve.
In the specific case of sustainability, many organisations undertake the first steps but lose motivation because there is no explicit, shared vision of success. Similarly, some organisations have lofty visions, but are unable to use that to guide their next steps.
A simple example of using these for a restaurant business may be:
The desired future is to be a sustainable business with three outlets by 2012, which will mean the owners can be taking a less hands-on role in the business. One scenario of how they might grow is to focus on sales to a nearby suburb with a growing percentage of wealthy, young professionals. The current business financial forecast is based on past trends in profitability, and shows that their may even be the resources to expand into a second store next year. The owners decide on the next action of visiting that suburb on the weekend, as the first step of market research.
So, that’s backcasting presented in the context of other methods. I like this quote, which I think communicates some of the relevance of this idea:
“A vision without a ask is but a dream, a task without a vision is drudgery, a vision and a task is the hope of the world” [From a church in Sussex, UK,1730 A.D.]
I have used these techniques consistently with established organisations, teams, entrepreneurs, and individuals in coaching sessions. There are a range or associated tools and techniques that can make the ‘backcasting’ experience and application very powerful, including experiential workshops like the ‘Future Room’.
Backcasting from principles is the primary context in which The Natural Step Framework, and Strategic Approach to Sustainable Development becomes so powerful.
Backcasting and creating a vision sets the conditions for creative tension that motivates – the gap between the current reality (holding you where you are) and future potential (drawing you forward). Like this figure illustrates:
(thanks to LearningHouse’s adaptation of Peter Senge’s concept)
More diagram visualising sustainability