As we start a new year, many of us are making plans for where we want to be in the future. For some, this might be where we want to be by the end of the year. Others might be planning over a longer timeframe. For example, arts and culture organisations across the UK are currently considering their plans for the next five years as they put together funding applications for Arts Council England.
However, in a world of decreasing stability and certainty, setting long-term plans can be daunting. If you are struggling with a similar problem – perhaps you are planning a project or developing a business plan – an approach I have found useful is to use "prospective hindsight". This means taking a trip to the future to view the project from there.
Don't worry if your budget doesn't stretch to a DeLorean with fully-functioning flux capacitor. You just need a room big enough to get the project team together in the same space, and dedicated time to focus on this. Ensure all of the key project stakeholders are represented. It can also be useful to have someone from outside the project to input from an external perspective.
Prospective Hindsight works by visualising yourself at the end of the project. Ask the group to imagine they have all come together to write the final review or evaluation report. For the first exercise, you should imagine that the project has been a success and everybody is delighted. Take a moment to congratulate yourself on the success (we had glasses of sparkling Elderflower when I did this with colleagues at the Royal Pavilion & Museums).
Ask the team to individually reflect on this success. Start by asking what outcomes have been achieved that mean the project can be classed a success. (This is particularly helpful for large projects with multiple aims and outputs). Get people to write down the three key criteria for success for them. Understanding what success looks like (i.e. the destination you are aiming for) makes it easier to plan the steps you need to take to get there.
While still viewing the project from a successful completion, visualise and record the steps you took to get there. Some questions that can help include:
  • What actions were vital in getting us to this position of success?
  • Which staff/stakeholders/partners were vital to the success? What did they contribute?
  • What skills, behaviours or processes did you need to learn or incorporate?
  • What actions, behaviours or processes did you need to stop doing?
  • What resources did you need? (An alternative is to visualise the steps with different levels of resource. How would this change your steps? What resource had to be there? What did having additional resource help you achieve?)
A similar visualisation technique can also work for testing your plans for potential risks. Originally developed by experimental psychologist Gary Klein, this is called the ‘pre-mortem’ technique. As with the exercise above, knowing what the final destination is (in this case, catastrophic failure) makes it easier to see the routes that lead there. However, it also has another benefit - by framing your project as if a crisis has already happened you give your team freedom and confidence to voice concerns or possible challenges that they might otherwise feel uncomfortable sharing. 
The process for running a ‘pre-mortem’ is similar to the first exercise. Visualise yourself at the end of the project. However, this time things have gone spectacularly wrong. Firstly, get your team to define what “spectacularly wrong” would look like for your project. Now, get the team to individually brainstorm all of the things that could happen that would lead to these outcomes. Give yourself a good amount of time to come up with as many possible routes to failure as you can. Leave no stone unturned. Again, having insight from as many people involved with the project as possible helps to ensure you have thought of everything.
Once you have a list of potential problems, identify the most pressingones. These are the ones that will have the biggest negative impact if they happen, or have the most likelihood of happening. Importantly, they should also be the ones you can do something about. These are the ones you can do most to prevent. Having identified the routes to failure, you can now make plans to prevent them.
If you use prospective hindsight techniques it would be great to hear about your experiences. Please share your thoughts and any tips you’ve got for getting the most out of these exercises.