Explore Direct & Indirect Consequences Using a Futures Wheel

A brainstorming exercise to consider the possible results of a particular decision, event, or trend.

My adaptation of Jerome C Glenn’s futures wheel
My adaptation of Jerome C Glenn’s futures wheel

“We can produce better long-term solutions by improving our ability to spot unintended consequences before it’s too late. What we need is a framework to imagine and assess a range of future scenarios.”

👋

If you’re like me, a typical day consists of a million tiny decisions that you’ve gotten really good at answering. “What should I eat for breakfast?” or “What Netflix show should I binge next?” But occasionally, there are some decisions that require more thought, either because they’re too complicated or just really important. Recently, I’ve found Jerome C Glenn’s “Futures Wheel” to be a helpful exercise when thinking through those situations. In Glenn’s own words, “the futures wheel offers ‘a kind of structured brainstorming’ about the future. We start with a root trend; then, in a ring around the trend, we write some of its potential consequences.”

As a visual thinker, it’s important for me to literally see my options laid out and how they’re all connected to each other. The simplicity and versatility of this exercise has really improved my ability to make better long-term decisions for everything from analyzing hiring practices to predicting how a product decision might unknowingly cause harm to others. I find it useful in my personal life, as well, when faced with important life decisions. Recently, I used it to help determine the risks of visiting my aging parents during COVID for their 50th anniversary. (I chose to seem them, but only after getting tested.)

If you’re still interested, I’ve laid out clear instructions below along with some templates to make it easy.

Filling Out the Wheel

Animated process for filling out a futures wheel

A futures wheel consists of 3 rings of circles, connected by lines (connectors), representing a direct relationship. The middle circle represents the decision, event, or trend you are analyzing. The subsequent rings represent the direct (2nd ring) and indirect results (3rd ring) of that action. Some circles on the outer ring have 2 connectors, signifying they are the result of both ‘direct results’ occurring.

  1. To get started, fill out the center circle describing the decision, event, or trend that you want to evaluate.
    (As an example, let’s use “Build a more diverse team”)
  2. Next, fill out the direct consequences, both positive and negative, that occur immediately after this change.
    (Examples could include “More unique perspectives” or, negatively, “Managers feel ill-equipped to hire for diversity”)
  3. Finally, complete the outer ring by listing all the indirect consequences of the direct results. The important step here is to use the connector lines to combine the 2 related direct results. This will help you brainstorm new indirect consequences by thinking “What would happen if both of these direct results occurred?”
    (An example combining our two previous results could be “We hire outside diversity training for managers”)

With the circle complete, you can keep going with another circle if you have more ideas, or move into the analysis portion of the exercise. Here you’ll start to identify and focus on your top priorities, then create an action plan to increase the likelihood of your desired outcome coming to fruition.

Next Steps (Optional)

  1. Using both the direct and indirect results, choose (or vote as a group) on 5 that you believe will have the greatest positive impact. Do the same for negative outcomes.
  2. One at a time, copy each of these 10 circles and put them either in the positive or negative outcomes bucket.
    If I’m unsure, I think about whether I’d want a journalist to write a story about it.
  3. Now, you can start to prioritize things. For the positive outcomes, plot each circle by the “opportunity size” and “probability of occuring”, looking for big opportunities with a high probability of occurrence.
  4. Do the opposite for the negative, looking for outcomes that would have a large impact and are also likely to occur.
  5. Finally, brainstorm ideas for action items you can take in order to achieve or avoid the outcomes you identified.
  6. For best results, ensure you add some deadlines and measurable results for each of the action items.

That’s it! The beauty of this exercise is the adaptability of it, so don’t be afraid to mix things up. I’ve used it for everything from major hiring decisions to choosing my next vacation spot.

And I will say that, with practice, you will find yourself able to make these types of connections quicker and easier.

🤙

VP of Design at The Zebra