Critical Back-Casting

By Gerald Midgley

Gerald Midgley (biography)

How can we design new services or strategies when the participation of marginalized stakeholders is vital to ethicality? How can we liberate people’s creativity so we can move from incremental improvements to more fundamental change?

To answer these questions, I have brought together insights from Russ Ackoff and Werner Ulrich to develop a new method that I call Critical Back-Casting.

Russ Ackoff, writing in the 1980s, is critical of organizations that focus on incremental improvements without ever asking whether they are doing the right thing in the first place. Thus, they are at risk of continually ‘improving’ the wrong thing, when they would be better off going for a more radical redesign. Ackoff makes two far-reaching prescriptions to tackle this problem. The first is participative co-creation: all parts of an organization should be involved in the redesign. This way, you can get whole-of-organization buy in for radical change, rather than the imposition of a top-down strategic plan. The second prescription is idealized design, and this represents a radical break from business-as-usual strategic planning.

Idealized design involves everybody in the organization working collectively to redesign it. However, rather than ask ‘how can we improve what we are doing?’, people are encouraged instead to imagine that their organization has ceased to exist, and they are on a task force to produce a design of something entirely new that will really meet the needs of citizens or customers. The task force only has to respect three constraints:

  1. Technological feasibility – they can propose new technology, but it has to be possible to develop it (so no science fiction!).
  2. Viability – when up and running, the system or service must be sustainable (initial investment costs can be disregarded though, as ideas always run ahead of investments).
  3. Adaptability – the system or services must be capable of learning and adaptation into the future as things change.

The idea is to liberate people from the constraints of current assumptions and to stimulate creative thinking. While one might assume that different stakeholders will have very different visions of the ideal system or service, and will come into conflict, Ackoff says that this is not the case: there is invariably an overwhelming agreement on the ideal, with only relatively minor disagreements to resolve, and the consensus on the majority of issues generates sufficient trust for people to have confidence that remaining disagreements can be constructively addressed. My own experience suggests that Ackoff is right, and once the ideal design is generated, an action agenda can be created with practical steps toward implementation.

In modern management-speak, this approach is called ‘back-casting’ (starting with where you ideally want to be and then working backwards to the present day), and it is contrasted with ‘forecasting’, where people take what we have today as given and try to anticipate what will happen next. Ackoff’s books describe numerous examples of back-casting in practice, mostly in large multi-national industries, but also for city planning and other public sector change initiatives.

However, when I first read Ackoff’s work, I had some reservations. He talks about involving everyone in the organization, but in community contexts, participation usually needs to be much wider than formally constituted organizations, and this means facing up to the problem of marginalization. If marginalized stakeholders who are supposed to benefit from a service are not centrally involved in its design, the result can be something that is based on a simplified professional model of the typical service user, rather than accounting for the lived, diverse experiences of real people.

A way to address this is to draw on 12 questions, originally designed by Werner Ulrich (1994) in the context of empowering citizens to challenge professionally imposed designs. These questions can support both marginalized stakeholders and professionals in thinking through critical issues of governance and inclusion as they produce their ideal service or system design. My version of these questions, modified for use in back-casting, can be found below. I have used the word ‘service’, but it could equally well be ‘system’, ‘partnership’ or any other term that refers to a purposeful initiative. Because Werner Ulrich says that his questions stimulate critical thinking, I call their use with idealized design (and the three constraints listed earlier), Critical Back-Casting.

Here are the questions:

(1) Who or what should benefit from the service, and how?

(2) What should be the purposes of the service; i.e. what goals should it aim for in order to deliver to the beneficiaries?

(3) What should be the service’s key measures of success?

(4) Who should be seen as the key decision makers; i.e. have the authority to change who should benefit, what the purposes should be and how success should be measured?

(5) What components (resources, people, policies, etc.) should be under the authority of the decision makers?

(6) What is essential for delivery of the benefits and purposes, but should not be under the authority of the decision makers?

(7) Who, either in addition to or instead of the decision makers, should be involved in delivering the benefits and goals?

(8) What should count as expertise; i.e. who should be considered an expert and what should be their roles?

(9) What are the key factors that will guarantee (or increase the likelihood of) success?

(10) Who or what could be affected by the activities of the service; should the affected be represented in decision making, and (if so) how?

(11) To what extent should the affected be able to retain independence; i.e., opt out or neutralise the effects on them, and/or take actions of their own choosing?

(12) Upon what core values and assumptions should the service be based?

I have used Critical Back-Casting in approximately 20 projects, with various participants (e.g., homeless children, older people, children in residential care, people with mental health problems and many service providing stakeholders). Midgley (2000) provides a couple of detailed examples. Below, I offer several general reflections based on this experience.


  • A facilitator is needed to make this work.
  • Once a facilitator has used the questions in several projects, they become internalized sufficiently to inform more free-form facilitation exercises, without the need to go through them systematically.

The questions:

  • For every question, 6-10 follow-up questions need to be asked to tease out details specific to the context.
  • The questions work equally well with professionals, ordinary citizens and people with marginalized identities who have had no previous experience of planning and management. Indeed, more frequently than not, ‘ordinary’ citizens and marginalized stakeholders find it easier to generate ideal designs than professionals, because the latter tend to be more disempowered by limitations built into their current organizations.

The process:

  • Expectations need to be managed. Ideally, the method is used in a real planning initiative where stakeholders can be confident that their ideas will inform action. If this is not the case (e.g., if the exercise is only going to inform recommendations for action that may or may not be implemented), then participants need to know this.
  • Power relations matter. If the participants don’t feel they can talk freely and openly in front of one another, the process will fail.
  • When free and open communication is not possible, an antidote is to run separate groups with different categories of stakeholder. However, when people see the far-ranging consensus that is produced, they usually want a follow-up workshop to bring the groups together, and this possibility needs to be planned into the process.
  • There are always moments in the flow of the discussion when it feels natural and necessary to deviate from the questions to look at what the structures for governance should be. This usually happens once people have realized that the meaningful engagement of stakeholders is necessary, and they want to look at how this can be accomplished.


  • Supporting people with action planning after the idealized design is essential.
  • Full implementation is more likely in the context of the design of new services rather than the reform of existing ones. This is not to say that the insights from back-casting are completely irrelevant to reform projects – they can provide a vision to work towards. However this has to be done more incrementally than might be ideal because the very survival of the organization is usually dependent on the continuous delivery of services. Nevertheless, full implementation in reform projects is possible when the organization or initiative is in dire trouble and radical change is the only realistic option for survival.
  • Finally, as long as people can talk freely, workshops using this approach are tremendously exciting (sometimes euphoric) because they almost always generate far-reaching insights. This is therefore a really useful approach for providing a foundation upon which to build further collaboration into the future.

Do you have related methods or experiences to share?


Ackoff, R. L., Magidson, J., and Addison, H. J. (2006). Idealized Design: Creating an Organization’s Future. Wharton School Publishing: Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA.

Midgley, G. (2000). Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology, and Practice. Kluwer/Plenum: New York, USA.

Ulrich, W. (1994). Critical Heuristics of Social Planning: A New Approach to Practical Philosophy. Wiley: Chichester, UK.

Biography: Gerald Midgley is Professor of Systems Thinking in the Centre for Systems Studies, Business School, University of Hull, UK. He also holds Adjunct Professorships at the University of Queensland, Australia; the University of Canterbury, New Zealand; Mälardalen University, Sweden; and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He publishes on systems thinking, operational research and stakeholder engagement and has been involved in a wide variety of public sector, community development, third sector, evaluation, technology foresight and resource management projects. He is a member of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series developed in preparation for the second meeting in January 2017 of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

12 thoughts on “Critical Back-Casting”

  1. This is a very insightful article and I thank you for condensing so much knowledge and experience so succintly. I’d like to ask you about facilitation. What goes into decision-making about the choice of facilitators? Under what circumstances should researchers facilitate (or not facilitate) collaborative workshops?

    • Interesting question, because I have always just assumed I would be facilitating, and I have never had to choose a facilitator myself – other than someone offering training in mentoring. So I am not sure I am the best to answer this. All I can say is that a good facilitator is not just someone who knows a methodology – other significant skills are needed, such as awareness of the dynamics of relationships in the room; emotional awareness; ability to engage with people in a manner that opens dialogue; sufficient self-understanding to be able to reflect in the moment on one’s own cognitive-emotional patterns, to understand when one is being overly influenced in one’s interventions by things like unhealthy conflict avoidance, wishing to determine the outcome oneself, etc. Cognitive-emotional self-understanding is also necessary because one’s own emotions are often a mirror of what is happening in the room, so your gut is a guide to what’s happening. I’m not sure that helps a lot, as identifying in advance who has these skills is not easy. I guess I would go with a recommendation from someone I trust.

      Should the researcher facilitate? It depends what model of research you have. If research, for you, means intervention (or action research), then there’s nothing wrong with facilitating. If your view of research is that intervention is to be avoided and you are simply studying what happens in facilitated sessions, then it makes sense to be an observer, not a facilitator. I do the former type of research, although I do collect data (in the form of questionnaires and sometimes reflective workshops) on participant experiences.

  2. My interest is in who to involve from a ‘community’. Often, those active enough to participate are also those with views, and such views may not chime with the majority. How do you deal with representativeness (excuse clunky expression)?

    • I have a controversial opinion on this: representativeness is important for research into the distribution of different opinions among the population, but it is different for the kinds of projects I engage in. There are several points to be made here.

      First, I always do what I call ‘boundary critique’ before even deciding what methods to use. This means exploring possible boundaries of both stakeholders and the issues that concern them, and therefore the potential values that could inform the work. I get to know a bit about who has a view and what they will bring by way of issues, conflicts, etc. The extent of the boundary critique varies: I have done as little as a day of exploration and as much as 18 months.

      Based on the boundary critique, I will choose methods (which may or may not be the ones discussed in the blog). Assuming it is a critical back-casting approach, I will already have used two techniques in the boundary critique – snowballing (asking people what other stakeholder groups will have a view) and difference identification (I got this idea from Bob Dick, who asks “who would have a different view from you”, to counter the tendency for people to suggest others like themselves).

      In forming groups, there is then a need to choose whether it’s mixed-stakeholder or separate-stakeholder groups. This depends on how open people are to talking in front of others. Whichever is the case, however, bringing people into workshops depends on engaging those who really care. At this point, I may be accused of losing representativeness, but I argue that it doesn’t matter:

      These planning exercises are not surveys. We are not finding out what people already think, and how different viewpoints are distributed across the population. We are giving people an opportunity to DEVELOP their thinking in collaboration with other stakeholders. Thus, the most important thing is to represent different stakeholder categories and not the general population. Indeed, you find that differences of perspective on the current situation pretty much evaporate when it comes to idealized design, so the emerging perspective of the stakeholders may actually represent a wider constituency than might at first be obvious.

      Plenty more to say on this. I once did a project on housing for older people where the statutory agencies really didn’t want to collaborate with the known service user groups because they said that those groups were dominated by a few ‘unreasonable’ people whose views were not representative. We therefore went to residential care facilities and recruited new people who wanted to be engaged, and those vocal user representatives participated alongside those who had never been part of a planning exercise before. This had two effects. First, the agencies loved what the older people had recommended, and when they realized that the recommendations had come from groups that contained the usual loud voices and also went beyond them, they were forced to rethink their attitude to those loud voices. My own personal view is that they had become so loud, and appeared to the agencies to be unrepresentative, because the form of ‘user engagement’ being used was inadequate, with people not really being listened to and therefore it led to conflict. The more those voices were labelled as ‘unprepresentative’, the louder they got, and the more they were labelled as ‘unrepresentative’! Our workshops broke this pattern. Indeed, I said to those agencies that it is important to have the loud voices in the room because they won’t go away, so it’s better to find a productive means of engagement than try to ignore them. The second effect this had was it gave the agencies confidence to recommend that a “shadow leadership” body be established, so all strategic plans could be tested with service users, and service users could themselves suggest strategic initiatives that could be tested with the agencies.

      This is therefore a different take on ‘representativeness’ – the usual researcher understanding of it really doesn’t apply. Does this make sense?

  3. Wonderful! I’m going to report your ideas in an upcoming meeting of policymakers and researchers. Your proposals could launch a reframe of how to address education inequity. Fingers crossed.

    • This is precisely the kind of context that Werner Ulrich developed those questions for. He was Head of Evaluation for the Canton of Berne in Switzerland before he retired.

  4. I have run user groups for healthcare polyclinics on these lines although with nowhere near enough time for this much questioning. It worked well, largely because it was one stage in a longer term consultation process so there was always a solid, documented staring point. Good management by the dear old British NHS!

    The biggest problem I hit was that if creating a new service stream the providers, “experts” and customers are not identifiable role holders. So you have to invent virtual role descriptions for providers, experts etc and find people to pretend to be these future actors. This generally works. Except that you may have to pay the virtual consultees for their time…

    It’s good that adaptability is one of your three considerations. Not everyone involved can or will prioritise your project, they will provide late input, they usually have a right to do so, and the project must adapt. You can whinge about the late changes but if you never change you never improve.

    • Thanks for those thoughts. Yes, who counts as a stakeholder has to be widened to include the affected as well as the involved. Also, in some projects there is a need for specific “knowledge holders” who might not have a direct stake in the project. I find I can run a workshop using this method in half a day, but with action planning too, it takes longer.

  5. I haven’t looked at the specifics of the method, but I know David Snowden personally, and we have talked about issues around this. He is quite scathing about back-casting, and it came as a surprise to me that his diagrams of the ‘adjascent possible’ suddenly had an ‘ideal’ in the top right hand corner. So, prior to those diagrams, he advocated only finding possible neighbouring futures that already exist somewhere in people’s narratives of positive practice, and stepping to that model of practice. My issue with this has always been the direction of the step: without ethical reflection and dialogue, how do you know this is a good improvement or a retrograde step? I don’t know whether it’s me he’s listened to on this, or someone else, but the ideal has now appeared in his models.How he derives that ideal, I am less sure. If it’s just the unreconstructed views of the client, it’s not good enough in my view. There has to be explicit ethical reflection and dialogue between stakeholders – and individual stories are not dialogue.

    I should also mention that, when it comes to action planning, I also take steps back from that end state. So I would ask people how long it might take to reach that goal and then ask what should be happening on various time horizons on the way there. So this is similar to what you say above I reckon. Or have I mistunderstood?

    • Insightful piece, prof. Midgley.
      I also struggle in understanding Snowden’s critique of backcasting. He has a series of blog posts in which he compares several approaches to planning: alternative scenarios, backcasting, and comes to a conclusion suggesting the side-casting (blog posts are a few years old, not sure whether that translated precisely into what he today terms the “future backwards” approach). In my understanding, Snowden’s critique is based on the observation that it is hard for the stakeholder involved to truly think creatively of a desirable future without being constrained by their biases and conditioning of the present day. Which is a fair point that some of the literature on backcasting acknowledges as well as a difficulty: how to get people to truly imagine “out of the box”?

      I agree with you in that the ethical considerations are a must, for the very reason that the more we transition on a gradient from a single forecast, to a handful of likely scenarios, all the way to a *desirable* scenario, we increase how value-laden in our choice. I think we can use science to inform the likelihood of certain scenarios as a way to outline boundary conditions (e.g. megatrends, such as fossil fuels depletion, demographics, etc) but at the end of the day the ethical dimension is unavoidable. I have written a series of four blog posts on this
      Best regards.

  6. Have you looked into Snowden’s Future Backwards method?

    It is superficially similar but somewhat more open, I think.

    Rather than design the end state, it elicits what would have to have happened immediately before a loosely defined perfect end state to allow it to arise and then what would have to have happened to allow that to happen and so on. The process is also repeated for a very bad end state. It helps to free participants from their current setting even more than I think imagining that the current situation had ceased to be. When it goes well, the participants’ minds are locked into the imagined future rather than the present.

    Interesting insights then emerge and can be used to plan in a forward direction when predecessor events start to overlap with the precursors to the current state so that possible ways to shift from the current state can be imagined.

    That is a patchy description but it is a fairly concise process with an interesting capacity to shift the viewpoints of the participants.


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