Marching backwards into the future with Backcasting: interview with Ephraim Bhatoo
December 6, 2016
No one can predict the future - that much is clear. But companies still need to plan ahead and seek potential opportunities. That’s where backcasting (a tool created by Kedge LLC) can help.
Unlike forecasting, which tries to predict the future based on linear projections, backcasting starts with vision. Then, as the name suggests, you work backwards to the present day.
Because it starts with a vision, backcasting is typically a visual activity. Usually teams diagram the activity on a large whiteboard or wall. It’s a collaborative, iterative process.
But what if your team is remote?
Can you still run effective backcasting sessions with distributed groups of people?
That’s what I set out to understand when I interviewed Ephraim Bhatoo, Manager of Workforce Planning at Disney. He’s part of a strategic foresight team that used MURAL to help them collaborate around the world.
They effectively used backcasting on a recent project, even though they weren’t in the same room. Read on to find out how.
JIM: Tell me a little about yourself and your team
EPHRAIM: I’m on the HR team here at Disney. We embarked on a year-long project to consider one of our function’s key focal issues by analyzing current HR trends and extrapolating these 20 years into the future.
Everyone on the team was in a different country, from the U.S., U.K., France, India, China and Australia. We’re literally spread out across the globe!
JIM: The backcasting activity you did sounds interesting. What were you trying to do and how did you do it with a remote team?
EPHRAIM: Well, it starts with an open mindset. When dealing with the real world we have to be able to challenge linear thinking because we live in very disruptive times.
Businesses need to be able to adapt quickly, and their information -- even creative information -- needs to be digital. The world can change rapidly and having a digital mindset allows you to respond in a similar fashion.
In HR, everyone is talking about design thinking. There’s a global trend pushing us to think how we can reinvent HR. Therefore we’re looking to creatively approach the challenge of what the Future of HR might look like for our organization.
Backcasting was one part of that for our team. We started with a hypothetical idea for 20 years from now- a possible future we could envision through the environmental scanning we performed as a group. Then, we travelled back to the present from 2036.
It’s really straight forward: place your envisioned future on the right and work to the left on a timeline. Ask yourself, what tasks across lines of business need to take place for each project step to be completed? Then add further steps you need to take on the timeline moving back to the present day.
We can use backcasting to explore different possibilities. The exercise looks way beyond traditional planning cycles (often 5 years max) to create a desirable future and work backwards to identify the necessary steps to connect that future to the present.
JIM: What are the challenges of working with such distributed teams?
EPHRAIM: Working across times zones is a big challenge. There’s almost never a good time to hold a call. Someone is always getting up very early or staying very late.
With a little practice, you can get used to it, though. You get good at calculating the time differences in other parts of the world. But the key is flexibility. If everyone is willing to give a little, you can usually find a way to work together.
Communication sometimes suffers with highly distributed teams too. We usually use conference software like WebEx, but on a call, only one person can share an idea at any time. It’s not uncommon to have a group of people just listening to one or two others speak.
JIM: How did using MURAL help?
EPHRAIM: MURAL made the conversation more dynamic. Everyone could join in, so participation increased dramatically. And we could capture feedback in real time as the team talked through the issues.
Without MURAL, the information would have been contained in emails and word documents, or at best photos of flipcharts or images of post-its and drawing boards.
I mean, how do you capture 25 pictures of whiteboards and retain the integrity of the information? Instead, we just needed a few murals. It would have been impossible to be creative and work globally without MURAL.
Also, backcasting isn’t something you necessarily do in one sitting. We found that there are bits of information that accumulate over time - weeks instead of days. Working online let us expand on the information as it came to us.
In the past, that would have been difficult because our team is literally scattered around the world. Travel isn’t always an option due to time and cost. We couldn’t have done what we did without MURAL, absolutely not. The group would have really struggled otherwise.
JIM: It also sounds like the ability to think visually helped the team understand the problem space and solutions better, as well. Is that right?
EPHRAIM: Absolutely. We don’t define the future. Our role is to look at what’s happening and consider the long term possibilities and implications. That exploration can then test our shorter term strategies in these future worlds. That’s what backcasting helped us do, along with other thought exercises.
MURAL helped us consider multiple possible scenarios and to see them in new context. This is a very visual project because you’re bringing murals together in a non-linear way.
Everything is becoming more visual. The creatives and managers alike have to come together.Visualizing the team’s collective thoughts enables us to make better decisions twice as quick.
Better yet, there’s also a reference you can track back to. MURAL has helped us keep a breadcrumb trail to our work. So it’s also about tracking and traceability – where did this idea come from? And here is all the work we did together and as you can see there are many inter-dependencies.
At the end of the day, storytelling needs to be part of HR especially in our company. Also HR can’t live in isolation, partnerships with Marketing, IT, Finance for example were all integral to the initiative we explored. So we’re seeing integration with other disciplines.
MURAL has helped people stay focused on one thing and simultaneously see the connections between other things in a whole new way.
JIM: Thanks, Ephraim!
Get your own backcasting template right in MURAL. Click the image below and select “CREATE MURAL FROM TEMPLATE” to add it to your workspace.
[TEMPLATE] Backcasting Template by Jim Kalbach
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