Quick course in mapping Coronavirus consequences using Futures Wheel

In the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic (at the end of February, slightly more than two weeks ago) I published a quick post where I used the Futures Wheel, to sketch the second or third-order consequences of the Coronavirus. In those days it was still just a threatening epidemic. My point was that maybe somebody else in the futurist community would be inspired to add to it or start to create more and better versions (because my first try was just a first draft, and it sucked)…

Since I almost didn’t get any response I had to rethink. My conclusion was that most people were not aware of these kinds of methods. A better approach would be to provide a quick course in using the Futures Wheel instead. That might inspire more people to learn something new and useful to manage their own situation. People who are not trained futurists…

What is the Futures Wheel?

The Futures Wheel is a standard tool in any futurist’s toolbox. It is a structured method for groups that helps them to discover and map the consequences of a certain change or trend. It was developed by Jerome C Glenn in the early 1970s and has been in wide use by futurists since then.

The image below illustrates the principles for the method.

In the center, we have the change or trend we are analysing. In the green circles directly outside the center, we can see the immediate consequences – the first-order consequences. Outside of these, in the red circles, we see the second-order consequences – the consequences of the first-order consequences. In the next ring of circles, we find the third-order consequences. There is, of course, no limit other than practical how many layers of consequences we could add. Between the circles, there are lines that describe the causal relations between different consequences.

I think everyone understands how important a method like the Futures Wheel is in times of complex and widespread crises like the Covid-19 pandemic. In a complex situation, it is virtually impossible to forecast the flood of cascading consequences. A tool like this is crucial for increasing our capability to see and map these.

A hands-on workshop using the Futures Wheel

The Futures Wheel provides a tool around which groups together can develop a map of third or more, order consequences of a certain change or trend. The process can eg be used to identify specific problems that need to be addressed. But it can also be used to encourage and structure efforts of wider thinking in larger groups.

From a workshop point of view, the Futures Wheel can also work as a first step to generate input to other kinds of tools like eg scenario planning.

To run a Futures Wheel workshop the only requirement is a large paper or a board to draw on. In the middle of the board, the facilitator writes the change or trend that will be analysed.

1. Identify immediate consequences

Let each participant ponder a couple of minutes and produce a list of the consequences they see. Share the lists, discuss the result and pick formulate the first-order consequences around the center. Draw lines from the core circle to the consequences.

The result might look something like this.

2. Find the second-order consequences

Lead the group through each of the first-order consequences and brainstorm two or three direct consequences of each. Write these down and draw lines representing the causal relations.

Instead of leading the whole group step-by-step through all consequences you can split the group in beehives to discuss each consequence and then come back to discuss and integrate their results on the board.

Note: try to really encourage the group’s to focus and the consequence at hand when moving on, and avoid discussing everything during the whole process

The image that will emerge might look something like this.

3. Identify more orders of consequences

During the discussions, the consequences of higher-order will definitely turn up. Collect them and discuss them one by one where they fit in the Futures Wheel. It can be both third or fourth-order consequences. Continue the process until all the important consequences have found their place. The important thing here is to place all the consequences in their right place and are causally connected as well as possible.

Note: if a workshop around the Futures Wheel shall render a useful result a certain amount of rigour and discipline is important. One way to achieve this is to keep up that structure during the discussion. Another way is to continuously adjust and normalise the emerging map during the breaks.

4. Highlight important consequences and develop action plans

When the Futures Wheel is ready, the workshop will enter the next phase. Now the group needs to analyse the map and highlight the consequences that need further work.

The next step is, of course, to split into smaller groups and develop action plans for each of the important consequences.

About the Futures Wheel and the process

The Futures Wheel builds on systems thinking but is not a tool for developing a detailed and ”correct” working simulation model. It is rather a method for widening and deepening the perspective in group discussions around possible future consequences. Groups using the tool are encouraged to find new consequences and to develop a map the gives them an overview.

If you would like to learn more about The Futures Wheel you can contact me or your local futurist. Or if you are really interested Jerome C Glenn recently published a paper on the method and it’s recent developments and applications.