By Gerald Midgley
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:
- Technological feasibility – they can propose new technology, but it has to be possible to develop it (so no science fiction!).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).