Engineering the future backwards.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m probably butchering the crap out of what Cognitive Edge put into the “Future backwards” methodology but in butchering the crap out of it, I’ve learned it can be a great vehicle to visualize work but also bridge the communications gap and provide a way to represent emergence, failure, successes, convergence or simply clarify overwhelming decision points.

From Coginitive-edge.comThe Future, Backwards method was created to aid in widening the range of perspectives a group of people can take on understanding their past and the possibilities of their future. The entrained perspectives of people within an organization give them a limited view of the present, and such entrained patterns of past perception can determine its future.

I use the idea of building a future backwards diagram to achieve multiple goals. For me, it helps represent a map of more simple decisions or states and how those states appear to flow from historical perspectives to future perspectives (I try and visualize these forwards and backwards in time and sometimes representative of the decision points made now). Not only to represent as things were, as things are but as things may be and how decision points can lead to future states, surface emergent properties, show how systems adapt & evolve or how things fall back and fade away.

What I love about the ideas behind this future backwards mapping is that it is a visual representation of a complex “thing”. In my talk referenced below I tried to convey that a pterodactyl was misunderstood for YEARS but by visualizing it people were able to convey lessons learned and morph their understanding into a more complete understanding – a pile of bones is simply to incomprehensible of a place to be at to decide what something really is.

Even though this pterodactyl was wrong, it still led to a better understanding of it.


As for the following diagram that looks like a twisted paperclip – that is a Feynman diagram – a picture that conveyed a very complex interaction of subatomic particles that simplified calculation into manageable chunks and conveyed a way for people to communicate very complex and abstract things.


So what is “Future Backwards”?

The future backwards is a method of “sense making” designed/created by cognitive-edge. From Wikipedia “Sensemaking is the process by which people give meaning to experience. While this process has been studied by other disciplines under other names for centuries, the term “sensemaking” has primarily marked three distinct but related research areas since the 1970s: Sensemaking was introduced to Human–computer interaction by PARC researchers Russell, Stefik, Pirolli and Card in 1993, to information science by Brenda Dervin, and to organizational studies by Karl Weick.

Most of all for *ME* – its a diagram of something complex that I can apply a little science to in order to better understand, measure and predict from.

My Butchered Future-Backwards diagram – Getting Started


Again, this example image is completely my take on future-backwards and how I’ve used it to make sense of my work. I’ve used it to show an example “Desired” or “future state” and I’ve used it to show our “current state” and then a “concerned state”. The example current state is not positive or negative but the reality of what is driving the business. (nor is this really the objective of the process as described by cognitive edge)

In some cases mapping this out can help you reinforce what you need to succeed. If you need to “keep the lights on” that “current state” may be the most important thing. This was one of the most important things I let escape my mind in my talk about simple diagrams such as this – the visualization of complex parts & decisions that are often lost in translation as teams are making huge leaps into new territory almost as an act of faith rather than a testable hypothesis of “will this work and how can we know”. You may see that you need to distribute work – hand off the “keep the lights on” to an “SRE” team but move the “future” state to an engineering team that can have the focus, budget and resources needed to sustain apparent states.


When you map our a “Future backwards” diagram you have done some work on visualizing your work and through these representations you can simplify the calculations and more importantly the communications of what works, what didn’t work and what may have worked better or worse than you expected. You can see if decisions lead to alternate paths or if systems/processes you thought would diminish were actually surfaced and expanded. This process of comparing and looking for variance is how I see adaption, exaptation or even extinction. It’s where I “borrow” another method of setting up some of these decisions / states as “safe to fail” experimentations just to know if they’re viable and surfacing or buffering desired or undesired states & outcomes.

Adaptation / Exaptation

By visualizing your future backwards, you may see patterns that surface all the time or patterns that seem to evolve to always survive even in states you didn’t predict them to be. This is hard to quantify unless you’re mapping them out and you may never recognize such value or in some cases, patterns of failure unless you *do* map it out. Some things can be so well entrenched that you may need to represent them in a future-backwards diagram in much finer granularity than the broad-stroke decision graphs i’ve shown in my examples.

In this example future-backwards map I broke things out a bit more specific to a use case and showed how its less a concern of good/bad/status quote but more a realization of containers, physical machines or virtual machines and possible divergence & convergence routes between the paths.


In the above example a Java shop may choose to do design choices of all of the above or one or the other and you can visualize this to show how two decisions may be similar enough that they converge and the others may be divergent.

I could cite examples all day long, but I just wanted to give more breadth to my talk to try and answer some of the questions that came up and whatever I missed in my 5 minute ignite 🙂

A Lightning talk is a darn near impossibility on this topic, but I hope to one day master it because I think 5 minutes of future-backwards has a payback impossible to to quantify to those who embrace it and butcher it for their own way to improve communications & awareness. Here is my deck from DevOpsDays Austin 2015.

BTW, these diagrams are super simple to make if you have a modern wiki or website/editor with the “gliffy” plugin. Just use the standdard basic shapes and lots of decision triangles. It really only takes a few minutes to do but the payoff can be massive.

I look forward to hearing you’re use of such diagrams and what success/thoughts or feedback you get. (or if it fails, I want to hear that too..)

PS, I apologize @snowded if I’ve butchered your hard work, but it has inspired me to do awesome things, so take that for whatever it’s worth 😀

This is just a way to get you thinking and visualizing. Some people like to do super complex overall “Design sessions” and leave this stuff up to management but as a tech person who works with data, graphs and visualizations all day long it just made sense to bridge this gap not only as finding intent/design in my work but communicating it and formalizing it.

Best of all, when you draw this stuff up and put it up on a wiki, go back to it later and see if what you experience “jives” and make sure to discuss and map what worked/didn’t work to better understand and “make sense” of your own environment. BTW, Adaptation and Exaptation are wonderful things, you can really empower people when you see and foster their creative output and translate that or surface that through future states and its also pretty amazing when something created with different intent can be represented as having value even in places you didn’t expect them to be!

Map/draw/graph on!

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