Futurespectives seem to be a much rarer practice than retrospectives. I learnt about using Futurespectives when I working with ThoughtWorks and I’ve used them a few times but I can’t seem to find a great online resource to introduce people to the idea. Liz Keogh’s advice on Futurespectives is probably the best I’ve found (beyond a lot of retro as a service companies writing marketing blog material about them).
One reason for their lack of adoption is that they require a certain amount of speculative imagination and that sometimes doesn’t come easily to developers who are very rooted in the realities of their work and sometimes think it is fanciful to speculate about the future.
However if you can persuade people to engage then I find this exercise to be very valuable for surfacing concerns and getting delivery teams to align on the broad shape of their approach to the work. It often sparks conversations that are being suppressed particular if people are being pressed for “commitments” on the upcoming work.
As with retrospectives, generating responses to the initial questions is best done independently and the consolidation of the individual answers and the discussion of what they reveal is best done collectively.
I ask the following questions but as with all practices it is often worth investing some time in trying to figure out what the purpose of the exercise is and what questions would best elicit responses that drive the conversation forward.
As a facilitator the frame for these questions are: “Imagine that we have completed our project. It has been a success even if at times it may have been hard work. The project meets the requirements and is working well in production. Our solution may be different from what we imagine today but we were able to adopt new ideas successfully. The team is happy and satisfied with how the work has gone and we didn’t need to make any excessive requests on their time and skills.”
- How were we successful?
- What problems did we have to overcome?
- What are we proud about what we’ve done?
I ask people to generate responses from their perspective alone although they are free to speculate about how other teams and people will have helped or contributed along the way.
If people are struggling with the exercise I sometimes try to provide some starting questions. How do you feel about the project being complete? What do you feel satisfied to have done? What went better than you were expecting? How do other people feel about the work when they are talking to you about it?
Again the frame for all these questions is that the project has been successful (despite any doubts the participant may have now); the engineering mindset needs to accept that as definite thing and that the problem to be solved is: how was it successful despite this doubts? How were the problems solved or mitigated?
This last part is the critical step because it typically allows people to apply unconventional problem solving ideas. Typically people who are worried about a future problem cannot get past it if they feel it is unsurmountable however if you tell them that someone else has already solved it then just knowing that a solution exists allows people to reframe the problem and overcome their block on what the answer may be.
During the consolidation phase of the exercise, you bring the individual answers together and play them back to the group as a whole. This element is exactly the same as facilitating a regular retrospective. Try and ensure that any explanation of people’s ideas that the group needs is done during this phase. Often people are more aligned than they think but if there are any sharp disagreements in the approach they will typically come out now and its important that participants don’t reject any ideas at this stage because they will just return to their existing mindset.
Pay particular attention to similar ideas using different language, this can indicate that people are probably approaching the problems in a similar way but aren’t yet communicating enough to have shared ideas or a collaborative design approach. If there’s a lot of this it may be worth setting up a follow up to just review and consolidate the current state of play in the project. It may be that preparation is being rushed and the team isn’t having enough time to work together.
After creating and consolidating the initial input we now look at the three questions in a different way to help us generate actions from the futurespective. I sum up how we move from our imagined future to actions today in the following way for each question:
- How do we realise our expected paths to success? What needs to happen to start towards that outcome? (Make true)
- It is likely that we will encounter our anticipated problems, how can we minimise the impact they will have on us? (De-risk)
- How can we ensure we have pride in our work? (Achieve)
At this point the session is more of a facilitated free-for-all with the initial phase being open to all ideas and suggestions. Some really common actions are that technical leaders realise they need to share more information on their vision and ideas with the rest of the team. It is also really common that when several people anticipate the same problem that prototyping, testing or training can be done very early on in the project plan to remove the problem or shift it a better understood class of problem.
The pride question often has actions that are associated with process, quality and shared standards and beliefs. Often though ideas about collaboration and the “team contract” come into play. Leaders can explain what others can rely on them for and what they want from the rest of the team. People can share fears in a way that allows people in authority to acknowledge that they share the same fears in a safe way. The format encourages not just the expression of fear but how will we manage our anxiety about the upcoming work.
In many ways if you’ve facilitated a retrospective you have all the skills that are required to run a futurespective, the tricky thing is about getting the participants in the right frame of mind.
In terms of measuring the impact of a successful futurespective you should be able to see a move from analysis to action and a growth of shared language and outcomes. Perceptions between the key participants of the project should be positive as they are already imagining a successful partnership ahead.