Wednesday 4 March 2020

Running a Futurespective

What is a Futurespective?

Most people will nowadays understand, at least broadly, what a retrospective meeting (usually abbreviated to retro) is all about. There are many different flavours of retro, and having worked for ThoughtWorks for 5 years, I met a fair few, but essentially you are looking at a period of work and working out what you did well, what you could have done better and what you might be able to do in order to improve your work in the future. But what is a futurespective?

The Goal

The goal of a futurespecitive is to imagine a future state, one would hope a desirable one, in order to then discuss what things can be done to help us to get there. So instead of saying "what did we get wrong?" which got us to where we are (which is usually where retros end up) we are saying "in order to get to where we would want to be, would do we need to do"? So in this way a futurespective is more goal oriented than a retro can ever be.

Time Frame

It is also worth noting that the time frame under discussion is usually much bigger for a futurespective than for a retro. A retro will generally focus on a period of weeks (sometimes we even talk about a sprint retro, which narrows down to the previous sprint, usually two weeks) or possibly months. At ThoughtWorks we sometimes did stuff like "milestone retros" during long running engagements, or "project retros" if the project in question was a much shorter thing. In a futurespective the focus tends to be much more strategic and therefore the question is likely to be along the lines of "imaging a year from now.... what would we need to do...?"

Different Techniques

I've been involved in a few different types of futurespective. Depending on the audience and the motivation for the workshop, you may choose a different technique. I've been involved in discussions framed around "What would good like a year from now for ThoughtWorks at this company", I've also been involved in "Imagine a year from now, the program we are kicking off is a success, what does that look like?" Right now, I'm talking about the second type of question. I try not to think about the first question in isolation, preferring a well aligned partnership with our clients.

News Headline

Our client has engaged us to talk about Software Modernisation of a particular system that is causing problems. My concern all week has been that we need to make sure that we anchor any modernisation goals within a framework of business value that is understood, articulated and shared. All too often I've seen technology-led change fail because the business value is not well understood outside of the technology group.

The technique that I facilitated today was the "news headline" technique. I asked the group to imagine a year from now that the program has already been delivering on its aims. What might some newspaper (or industry organ) have on its front page to report the remarkable success of our client in the previous year? I asked them in groups, to collaborate to produce a front page with a headline, 3 or 4 bullet points that expand on the headline, perhaps including a quote from "an industry insider" or an executive of this company and maybe a picture. We left them at it for a timeboxed period of 20 minutes. It was important to ensure that the people in each group reflected a cross section of the competences within the room. For example, the two business stakeholders, the two architects and the two product owners were split.

The Discussion

At the end of the 20 minutes we had two nice front pages (on A3 paper) reporting on this ideal future state. I'd love to share the photos here but they all had the client name on them so I can't share the photos without breaking client confidentiality. The discussion we had enabled us to pull out 6 bullet points that describe the aspirational future state from a high level viewpoint that we used to inform the subsequent discussions around the work that we should do and how we should go about doing it.


Essentially, (and with some redaction to preserve confidentiality) we learned the following things from this exercise:
  • (our client wants to be) responsive to change and therefore improve its time to market
  • (our client wants to be able to) deal directly with its end users rather than through intermediaries
    • So they need to make it more easy to buy their stuff
    • The clients will save intermediary fees
    • (our client) will need to somehow provide directly the capability that the intermediary organisations have been offering to their customers
  • (our client wants to be able to) approach more partners and therefore needs to make its internal functions more scalable to achieve the capacity to make this possible
  • (our client wants to) compete with some massive players in its business space, this is currently not possible for several reasons which I can't go into here
  • (our client wants) to have a ubiquitous internal language to describe its product function so that it is possible to share understanding better both internally and externally

Next Steps

The outputs are useful to us on a few dimensions. Firstly this is helping us to frame what we may do in terms that mean something to the business. I need to be able to go to an executive stakeholder in a few weeks' time with a vision and a strategy that says "we should do this technology stuff in order to enable this business goal that has been identified".

Secondly, this exercise narrowed the scope of the subsequent discussion over what areas of improvement might be relevant. It helps us say "why would we want to improve that area of your estate when changing it won't contribute to these higher level goals?"

Thirdly, the workshop was fun, it aligned people in the room, and it gives us some cool photographs to use in our presentation back to the client next week when we talk about what we learnt, what we recommend and how we can help them to achieve it.