under CC license by http://www.flickr.com/photos/bg/

Future Story

Brief Description

"A Future story is a simple, scaled-down approach to inviting groups and teams to describe the future in a way that is vivid, felt and credible. By shifting to a future forward tense and lively description, this future then becomes more real" (Sparknow website)

From Madelyn Blair's paper The Story of the Future, Told in a Day: "The process of creating Future Stories becomes a container within which participants feel inspired to explore new ideas to contribute to the future. They begin by exploring what is available from the present that can be used to build the future. In other words, Future Stories are grounded in the reality of today. The descriptions of the future that the stories explore must reflect the here-and-now, rather than be a vision that is unattainable".

"Shifting the date and looking back from the future – talking about the future as if it has already happened – supports groups constrained by unproductive or
‘stuck’ patterns and enables the psychological shifts necessary for change and positive action. It can create a benchmark to look back on when the actual date
arrives." (SDC's Guide to Using Story and Narrative Tools in Development Co-operation, Practitioner’s Version)


(if applicable)

When to use

Potential applications of the Future Story:
  • Forced or self-imposed organizational change
  • Team or community-building exercise
  • Future planning
  • Breaking down barriers within teams
  • Problem solving

How to use

Different processes can be used to come up with Future Stories. Madelyn Blair's paper The Story of the Future, Told in a Day details a one day workshop process that she undertook with a group of 40 people from teams that had just been merged in a reorganization.

The following process is a shorter one, taken from SDC's Guide to Using Story and Narrative Tools in Development Co-operation, Practitioner’s Version (p.p. 35-37):

1. Wind the clock forward to a specific date in the future – anything between 6 months and a year on works best. Establish with the group(s) you are working with that this date is now the present date.

2. Invite groups to work together to construct a short story on the particular theme you wish them to imagine together, e.g. ‘It is x date, and the road building project has been very successful. What is life like today?’ ‘It is x date, and the health centre is fully operation and regarded as a great success. What is it like working there?’

3. Allow a period of around 30 – 45 minutes for the group to develop and rehearse the story, ready to tell it back to the other groups.

4. Offer them the Handout ‘What makes a Future Story work?’ (see page 37 of the SDC Guide) as an aid.

5. Be specific about the audience they imagine reporting back to – e.g. another group starting the same kind of project? Somebody senior? An external conference?

6. Be clear that the telling time should be no more than 3 – 4 minutes.

Tips and Lessons Learnt

  • Prepare the ground for future stories, it's probably not a good idea to try and come at it cold. For example, it can be combined with a personal storytelling icebreaker, or building together a timeline for the organization or project, or using river of life (up until the "future" part)

Guidance notes from the SDC Guide:
  • This exercise brings humour into what can often be a stressful experience – planning for the future. It frees the mind and allows participants to imagine the world after the change they want to affect, can enhance the effectiveness of action plans or risk analysis by creating a very real, optimistic, shared future reality
  • The exercise is probably best used with a group that are already working together, or who will be working together as part of a change process
  • It is most important that it is told in the present tense only. This takes the participants out of an analytical mode and places them in an open and receptive frame of mind
  • The exercise is also most successful when the time span in which change take place is not more than a year
  • You may wish to audio-record the stories and use these as benchmarks at session in a year’s time, to compare the reality of what has happened with the imagination.

Examples & Stories

  • Madelyn Blair using future story at the World Bank in 2003
  • Lesley Shneier - using Madelyn's work on future story, I designed and facilitated a retreat at the World Bank in 2009. The group was really uptight, with several rather unpleasant cliques, and lots of resentments seething below an ultra-polite veneer. The goal of the retreat was to quite lliterally break the ice (or icicles!), and come up with new ways of working together. As suggested in the "tips and lessons learned" above, the retreat started with personal stories using Seth Kahan's "Jumpstart Storytelling" techniques as an ice-breaker. This helped people see one another as individuals instead of members of one or other clique. During the rest of the retreat, we used various facilitation techniques to mix people up, have them think in small groups, and generally change the group dynamics. The future story part came at the end. We set it up as follows: It is one year from now, and you have been awarded the President's award for achievement. You will have 5 minutes to make your acceptance speech, during which you must summarize what you did to earn this award. Note that some of the basis of this idea also came from Ben Zander's work on "Art of Possibility", where he asks his music students to write him a letter saying what they did to deserve their grade A during the year. Staff members went back into their work teams and really came up with some innovative and interesting ideas. Several even enacted their acceptance speeches, e.g. to illustrate an idea for working together online (which was unheard of in this group), they made a "TV screen" out of a carboard box, and all dressed in their pyjamas for the presentation. Several of the future story ideas were adopted. More importantly, the group had fun, bonded as never before.

Who can tell me more?

  • Madelyn Blair, Madelyn[at]Pelerei.com
  • Sparknow, someone[at]sparknow.net
  • Lucie Lamoureux, llamoureux[at]bellanet.org

Related Methods / Tools / Practices



Future story, storytelling, organisational change, planning, team building

Photo or image credits

Under CC license, http://www.flickr.com/photos/bg/