When a product team starts work on a product, it’s important that they understand the vision. This is, as they say, a bit of a no-brainer since otherwise they might build something that completely misses the mark. In a modern Agile world, we’re expecting a mix of Product Management, Developers, ScrumMaster, the Customer and perhaps key Stakeholders to spend time together in a collaborative effort to have, and maintain, a shared goal so many teams use exercises like the Product Box (originally from Innovation Games), Pixar Pitch, etc, to spark conversation between the people building the product and the people for whom the product is being built. Over the process of a few hours these activities get the Developers and Customers to a common understanding of what problem they’re attempting to solve.
Right. Great. So that, in an oversimplified nutshell, is how everyone can have a vision that they agree on to build a great product.
But what about building a great organization?
When I’m brought in to help people undertake Organizational Change, I always ask them, “Why are you undertaking this change?” Too often the answer is, “To be Agile”. The problem, of course, is Agility is not the goal, it’s the outcome of improving the system. Then I ask who was involved in creating this “why” and the answer is usually “Management”.
When change is started by Management alone, the Doers perceive the change to be imposed on them and not something they’re part of. Co-creating the Product Vision is critical for a Product to succeed, and the same applies to changing the system itself. We need the people who will be part of the change to participate in deciding the why of change.
Typically the why is because they want improvement of something, otherwise what’s the point? It can get trickier, though, when asked to identify what exactly that improvement should look like —what their vision for organizational change is. When we attempt to imagine the future, we tend to picture a slightly better version of the present. If I had asked you in the early to mid-2000s to imagine a future phone, it likely would have been some improved variant of a Blackberry with a physical keyboard. Few would have mentally pictured the iPhone features released in 2007, changing our expectations.
This happens because our brains are only able to extrapolate from the current state. So if we’re asked to look forward a few years into the future, we tend to project a version that is consistent with the current world but only about 20-30% better. If we want to create a new world, we must reverse that direction and, instead, imagine ourselves in the future state looking backward. This is referred to as “backcasting”, which is different from forecasting in that you start with the end in mind and “cast” backwards.
Variants of this technique have been used by Amazon, Komatsu and any number of groups imaging a world without the use of fossil fuels. In this case, we will use this approach when starting or sustaining an Organizational Improvement Process. By slightly tweaking the initial question, this is can also be used for Product Vison.
Picture from: https://www.naturalstep.ca/backcasting-starting-with-the-end-in-mind. Used with permission.
|Goal||Discover what success looks like in a change process.|
|When to use||At the start of a project or any time you’re beginning a new initiative.|
|Time||1-2 hours depending on facilitator experience and the size of the audience.|
|Who is involved||The Organizational Improvement Team – must include some doers, a few key decision-makers, and a few key stakeholders (the people sponsoring the change)|
- Long term scale, imagining a future at least five years out, sometimes longer
- Participatory Process, not just the views or plans of one person
- Identifies and helps prioritize preferred outcomes
- Vision should motivate and lead to collective action
(Adapted from Innovation Games – Remember the Future)
The exercise starts off with the facilitator asking the attendees to imagine a moment several years into the future, when their world of work is much better now. The facilitator asks participants to “look back” and see what made the change a success.
Participants write down the changes on sticky notes or the virtual equivalent using as much detail as they can. Once everyone has had a chance to write, draw, and reflect (10 – 15 minutes), participants take some time to group common themes (another 10-15 minutes). Once the themes are found, they’re reviewed to see if they suggest a headline (e.g. “World’s most improved quality” or “Our clients are so happy with our work, they surprised us with a paid vacation for the whole team”). Some approaches have boxes or prompts that invite people to answer specific questions – e.g. a newspaper article has a headline, main story, a picture and related news:
When the team have created enough examples, they select the best one(s) and that becomes their change vision. When choosing, look for one that gets people jazzed up about making change.
The key is, as the facilitator, to frame things as looking from the future state backward, to help reframe the thinking, and then asks open-ended questions. So instead of asking, “What will make our company more flexible/agile/better/happier/faster/have better quality?” the ask is more along the lines of, “It’s been five years and one month. Our team members are happier, our customers appreciate our quality, and our executives like our flexibility. What changes got us here?”
Other prompts that the facilitator might use:
- “Our improvement team is walking up on stage to receive the _____ award; the presenter says at no time in the history of this award has the committee seen an organization more deserving. Fill in the award name and describe the accomplishment.”
- “You overhear a group of your colleagues talking about the organization. They say they didn’t believe change was possible but, here we are five years later and change happened, this is now a better place to work. As you listen to them speak, what are they saying? Why is it a better place to work?”
If the group is larger than 7-8 participants, break into subgroups and share results back after a round of play. In this case invite the groups to self-organize into subgroups of 4 or more people. Ask that they work with people they haven’t worked with before. We’re trying to reinforce that all aspects of an Agile work world can be self-organizing.
Consider a second round of play where groups take ideas that inspire them from other groups, and see if they want to change their own “remembered future”.
Since most teams are used to working with a Product focus, you will need to remind them at the start, and perhaps also after the first round of work, that the focus isn’t about the product but making the process better.
We know we want to improve our quality and how our customers see our product. We might start with an opening question: “It’s been 5 years and a few months, our customers are phoning support, but not with problems.” What are they saying and why? Or “It’s been 5 years and a few months, we’re at an industry awards ceremony, the presenter is on stage saying ‘never before in the history of this association has ….”.
The team work with the prompt and say:
From this they might create a number of newspaper stories that shows the effect of their quality work from the customer perspective:
We’ve only shown one here, but a group will create many and then select the best idea(s) for their change vision.
Just by changing the opening question, this exercise can also work well for a Product Vision too.
Liberating Structures 1-2-4-All might work well to help the group self-organize to synthesize their discoveries.
Blank newspaper headline template:
Also see our “Agile Change or Adoption Always Starts with Why” article.
 Ch 4 – The Knowledge Gap – The Art of Action by Stephen Bungay
a href=”https://sustainablebrands.com/read/new-metrics/backcasting-a-roadmap-to-transformational-change” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>https://sustainablebrands.com/read/new-metrics/backcasting-a-roadmap-to-transformational-change
 Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play by Luke Hohmann
 For example: https://paraffin.ltd/visioning-a-successful-future-how-to-use-visioning-techniques-in-workshops/