Travel to the future and uncover what is needed today with Future~Present

A field report of using a ‘Liberating Structure-in-development’ called ‘Future~Present’

Christiaan Verwijs

Liberating Structures are a collection of interaction patterns that allow you to unleash and involve everyone in a group — from extroverted to introverted and from leaders to followers. In this series of posts, we show how Liberating Structures can be used with Scrum.

“Wait, you used to have tables during meetings? Why?” asked one of the “young ones” to the “elders”. This is a wonderful example of the kind of conversations that Future~Present makes possible.

Future~Present is a “Liberating Structure-in-Development” that acknowledges the power of stories, especially when shared in small groups — the story-telling we’ve done since the very start of human civilization. We’ve started using it extensively, both with large (85+ people) and smaller groups, with the purpose of increasing our understanding of and experience with this structure.

Future~Present is a “Liberating Structure-in-Development” that acknowledges the power of stories, especially when shared in small groups — as we’ve done since the very start of human civilization.

This post collects our experiences with Future~Present and the feedback we gathered. This helps move its development on, meaning that it will eventually be fully specified by the community on the five design elements of Liberating Structures. This post also shows how the five elements can be configured in countless different ways, and how the ‘official’ 33 microstructures on the website are only ‘tips of the iceberg’. Future~Present is based on “Interview with a future generation” by Joanna Macy.

Different groups engaged in Future~Present. The picture on the right is from a workshop with 85 participants, resulting in many different groups. We collected the insights in a large Ecocycle

The purpose of Future~Present

Future~Present invites groups to travel to a successful future and uncover what is needed for that today, while also appreciating what will grow into the success of tomorrow. It invites participants to take a positively novel perspective that encourages a “Yes, and”-attitude, improvisation, and out-of-the-box-thinking.

How we facilitated Future~Present

  1. Invite participants to form groups of 5 to 6 participants;
  2. Tell the story of Future~Present: “We find ourselves [30/40/50 years] into the future. We have fully achieved our purpose and went beyond it. [ Add more detail as to what this looks like ]. Younger generations have grown up in a world where our purpose has been fulfilled. They have no idea what the past looked like. We find ourselves around a warm campfire, attended both by elders — people that have grown up in a world where our purpose was not fulfilled — and younger generations. Together, we will explore what the past looks like and what changed to make this future possible.”
  3. Invite the groups to pick two ‘elders’. The others will play the ‘young ones’. Make sure the ‘young ones’ in each group have access to the guiding questions (see below);
  4. Invite the ‘young ones’ in each group to interview the ‘elders’ using the guiding questions and other open questions they can’t wait to ask now that they have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Encourage the ‘elders’ to improvise their answers and build on each other in a ‘Yes, And…’-style (10 min);
  5. Debrief with the whole group what enabled the success of the ‘elders’. How can we invest in these now? (10 min). If you want, you can collect the most important enablers from each group;

Invite the ‘young ones’ in each group to interview the ‘elders’ using the guiding questions and other open questions they can’t wait to ask now that they have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Questions for Future~Present

Although you can ask the “young ones” to improvise open questions to ask to the “elders”, we have found it helpful to hand out a set guiding questions (by Fisher Qua) to find the right tone and mood for the conversation and really dig deep:

  • “Elders, we have heard about the old days, times where hard. [ Expand with more details that are contextual ]. There seemed to be no way out. Is it true? What problems existed? Tell me.”;
  • “Elders, what was it like in the midst of this turmoil? How did you feel? What gave you hope amid the despair? Tell me.”;
  • “Elders, there are many stories about you and your fellow pioneers, what first small steps did you take? How did you turn up the heat? How did you build and maintain momentum? Tell me.”;
  • “Elders, I know you did not stop with those early actions. Tell me, where did you find the strength to go on? What unusual suspects showed up that gave you hope something more was possible? Tell me.”?

Examples of where to use Future~Present

  • We recently used Future~Present as part of a string where we asked Scrum Masters what made their success possible;
  • Use at the start of a new initiative or product to investigate what is needed today to make success in the future possible;
  • Use with Product Owners to investigate what enables their success in the present. The Product Owner(s) can play the “elders”, whereas other participants can play the “young ones”;
  • Use with Development Teams to define what about their work today matters to their success in the future. Then translate that into a team manifest or specific work agreements;
  • Use with a group that is stuck in a rut or with a challenge that they can’t seem to overcome;

Combinations with other Liberating Structures

Liberating Structures are like words. They build in meaning and power when you combine them into sentences. The combinations are endless, but below are some examples to get your thinking started:

  • Use Nine Whys first to identify a shared purpose for a group. Use Future~Present to travel to a future where that purpose has been fully achieved and uncover what made that possible;
  • Follow-up with 15% Solutions to identify next steps to take now, knowing what we know about the future we just explored;
  • Follow-up with What-I-Need-From-You to turn the enablers of future success into specific requests for help. Try to draw in the “unusual suspects” that showed up to help in the future;
  • Follow-up with Troika Consulting to give and get personal help with making the future success possible on an individual level;
  • Follow-up with Min Specs or Impromptu Networking to identify what is absolutely necessary to achieve that future, and what isn’t;
  • Precede with Ecocycle Planning to first map current activities of the group on the Ecocycle. Then use Future~Present to explore what helped move items across the Ecocycle in the future (and out of the Poverty of Rigidity-traps);
  • Use Future~Present to structure the conversation within a UX Fishbowl, where the inner circle consists of both “elders” and “young ones”;

Use Future~Present to structure the conversation within a UX Fishbowl, where the inner circle consists of both “elders” and “young ones”

Our findings

We’ve used Future~Present in many different scenarios, and found:

  • Some groups take the structure (and its conversation) quite serious while others mostly have fun with the perspective. Both are valid and okay. Make sure to draw out enablers of success in the larger group to allow everyone to benefit from each other, while also acknowledging how ludicrous our present might be when we look at it from the future;
  • Future~Present can create more urgency about what should be improved today by exposing the unspoken undercurrent. For example, we recently overheard two elders mention how “meetings tended to take hours without any decisions”. The “young ones” immediately wondered why people actually showed up, and why no-one stopped this seeming waste of time;
  • We’ve found that inviting people to sit in small circles in the ground really evokes the atmosphere of “sharing of stories around the campfire”. We even noticed groups creating small props (like a campfire) during the structure;
This group created a “campfire” from yellow and orange paper in a cup in the middle.
  • The guiding questions are really helpful to go deeper and explore areas that may otherwise be left untouched. One experiment we haven’t done yet is to use another Liberating Structure — like Impromptu Networking — to generate questions first;
  • We’ve found it helpful to emphasize the storytelling of Future~Present by introducing the structure as a story: “Its a warm, summery evening and we find ourselves…”.
  • In terms of specification on the five design elements, Future~Present seems to be quite complete. I feel that the way the invitation is structured can be improved, as it is quite unwieldy at the moment. The starting story and the five questions are a good starting point, but they are quite long. Reading them out from a piece of paper doesn’t feel quite engaging;

Future~Present is so much fun in how it uses storytelling as a way to propel our thinking forward into the future and outwards into new possibilities for today.

Closing

Future~Present is so much fun in how it uses storytelling as a way to propel our thinking forward into the future and outwards into new possibilities for today. Give it a try, and share your learnings to help the community develop this structure further. Let us know in the comments what your experiences with Future~Present are and how you’ve used this structure.

Interested in learning many different Liberating Structures in an intense 2-day workshop? Check out our agenda for upcoming Immersion Workshops. If you’re aiming to join, book early — they are exceptionally popular. Or join the Dutch User Group to learn more about Liberating Structures.

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleashing Organisational Superpowers

Christiaan Verwijs

Written by

I aim to liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing and ineffective ways of organizing work. Professional Scrum Trainer & Steward @ Scrum.org

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleashing Organisational Superpowers