Backcasting: Creating a Strategic Roadmap from the Future
Note: this is a research excerpt from Roxanne Nicolussi’s “Bigger Thinking for Smaller Enterprises”, published in 2017 and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
A vision means nothing without the tools to turn it into reality. As Kotter (1995) explains, the basic elements of the vision should be organized into a strategy for achieving that vision so that the transformation does not disintegrate into a set of unrelated and confusing directions and activities (Fernandez & Rainey, 2006, p.169). Emelo (2011) has outlined four crucial steps when it comes to using foresight to collaborate on a vision: collaboration from people of different levels and perspectives, reflection on the past, envisioning the future by sorting through the long-term implications of trends for unexpected challenges and unexploited opportunities, and strategizing to gauge the required commitment for each future opportunity as well as assessing its impact.
A well-articulated direction stimulates behavioural responses in the organization, ideally in the desired direction. There are, however, cases in which pitfalls and unintended consequences result in a realized direction different from the one that is desired (Dyson et al., 2015). It is for this reason that a clearly articulated vision in combination with a clearly articulated roadmap can increase the potential to achieve success. Reverse-engineering of futures, also referred to as backcasting, is one way to articulate that roadmap.
Reverse-engineering of futures, or backcasting, defines a desirable future and then works backwards to identify major events and decisions that generated the future, to allow organizations to consider what actions, policies and programs are needed today that will connect the future to the present. The foresight practice of backcasting, or reverse-engineering of futures provides a means by which participants can align on steps to achievement. Encouraging the creation of a shared vision, Senge’s (1994) third characteristic to becoming a learning organization, walks the user through the process of formulating a vision to direct change and the development of strategies for realizing that vision. Backcasting reminds participants that the future is not linear, and can have many alternative outcomes depending on decisions made and the impact of external events (Jackson, 2013).