Look Backwards to Get to the Future

by Michael Haberman on August 12, 2010 · 0 comments

I have mentioned several times that I am interested in futurism, meaning forecasting trends, looking at possible future events, just exploring what the future may look like. I am especially interested in applying this to the field of human resources. To that end I do a lot of reading and, as I have also mentioned before, one of my favorite books is Futuring: The Exploration of the Future by Edward Cornish. There are a number of good lessons that can learned from this book and I will be, and have been, posting about many of them.

We are all aware of “forecasting”. This is the method that the meteorologist uses to tell us the potential weather for tomorrow or for the next week. It is using current information to predict what may be happening in the future. But the one method that I wanted to bring to your attention is one you may already be somewhat aware of, and may have applied, but just did not know what it is called. This is “backcasting.”

Backcasting is according to Cornish where “we postulate a future goal, event or circumstance and then try to develop a sequence of steps or stages to explain the imagined future event or goal came to pass.” Cornish further explains that backcasting “… does not begin with where we are, but rather with where we want to be or might be at some future date.

From that point the task becomes to develop a scenario on how that event came to be. You work backwards developing what conditions must exist, what events must occur, what steps must be taken to determine if that future can actually occur. As Cornish says “Backcasting can be used to decide what is likely to happen in the future and to determine how to achieve one’s chosen goal.” Probably the most famous example of backcasting is President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon. NASA had to take that goal and backcast to determine what was needed to accomplish it.

In terms of you HR department this can be a very useful tool. Suppose you get the mandate that in two years you will have to be serving twice as many employees, in twice as many locations, with half the staff you currently have. What would you do? You would paint the picture and then work backwards thinking of methods, times, abilities, staffing, automation, costs, etc. You would determine whether that goal could be accomplished or, if not, what an acceptable alternative might be.

So as you are tasked in your HR department to be more strategic think of using the method of backcasting to be creative and to look at possible alternatives. Look backwards to look forward.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara A Hughes August 12, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Hi Mike,
That is a great concept and I'm going to use it in the future. I think it's a process that everyone should use to set goals but also believe alternative scenarios should be developed too. Does Cornish say anything about how to take account of assumptions?


James August 12, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Looking back will also give you a sense of how far you have come and where you need to head; which is in an essence, good for forecasting. Great post.


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