Future retrospective

Newspaper Mock-up

I’ve been coaching on and off since I got accredited back in 2007. In that time, one of my favourite coaching exercises to run has been the “future retrospective”. I’ve found it equally effective with executive teams as I have with individual coachees.

The first step is getting them to spend some time alone thinking about how they’d like to be five years in the future (as an individual, as a board, as an organisation) — and then to write about it as if it were a success story to be published somewhere they admire and respect.

One designer I coached wrote an article for Wallpaper, another for Creative Review. A leadership team in HM Treasury wrote a financial stability turnaround story for the Financial Times. A museums foundation CEO wrote for Museum International, in a piece describing how they’d made sure the sector weathered the crisis. And an HR director wrote an article for the Guardian on how they’d addressed an uninclusive culture to become a place where underrepresented talent is thriving (and recommending the firm to their networks).

I had asked them all to step into shoes five years ahead, and to write in past tense as if they were looking back at how they reached that point— describing their success in as vivid and concrete terms as they muster.

I asked them to tell the story of their vision, their strategy, and how it all unfolded over those five years. How they responded to obstacles, adapted their plans, overcame adversity. How they did so in a way that aligned with their values.

They brought their writing with them to the following session. Individual coachees talked me through what they’d written and I’d usually probe some of the assumptions and constraints, seek out missing steps or details that are key to the narrative — and then use that as the basis for a “from here to there”-style coaching session. In team sessions, we’d usually explore where visions for the future differed within the group, and begin drawing out assumptions and slightly different world-views. If we could, we’d create a composite of themes for a new shared story; if we couldn’t, we instead needed to identify together the points of tension the stories had uncovered, and what choices and decisions would need to be made to resolve them.

Sometimes we stopped there — we’d got what we needed when they’d imagined that ambitious future success. They’d created a vision of tomorrow that wasn’t shackled to today’s constraints. They imagined a world where they’d overcome their issues— the dysfunctional relationships, the imposter syndrome, the brand damage, the cashflow issues, the talent gap, whatever was eating at them. Now we were ready to explore what needed to be true for them to get there.

Other times the client wanted to continue. They’d draft and redraft until they’d created something they would re-use as an artefact. The Wallpaper article was mocked up in InDesign and framed as if it were real. An exec board turned their composite vision into a blog post they shared with the whole of their firm.

These were my favourite coaching exercises. They showed me that moving beyond the abstract through the creation of tangible things could unlock new perspectives, new details, new conversations, new possibilities and new starting points. I learned for the first time the power of prototyping — and that is why, and when, I started using prototyping in my policy work.