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Futurespectives – The Agile Time Stone

In a pivotal scene in the Marvel movie Avengers Infinity War, master of the mystic arts Doctor Strange uses the Time Stone to look into the future to experience every possible scenario and outcome in which the Avengers could face off against their nemesis, the Titan Thanos. 

Doctor Strange tells his fellow Avengers he observed fourteen million six hundred and five scenarios and, based on what he experienced, reveals there was only one future where the good guys win.

Fourteen million to one. Daunting odds not in favor of success. 

If you’ve been part of an agile product delivery team for any length of time, you’ve probably felt like you’ve faced similar discouraging odds before your next increment — whether it be introducing a new product to the market, a feature upgrade or even completing a successful sprint. Sometimes the circumstances and chances of success seem stacked against you.

Wouldn’t it be great if you had the powers of Doctor Strange and the Time Stone? You could look into all the scenarios, identify and remove impediments, recognize and mitigate risks, map and manage dependencies, and anticipate and deliver on all your customers’ needs.

While we’re not masters of the mystic arts and have no Time Stone at our disposal to help us see the future, we are scrum masters and practitioners of agile frameworks and we have a tool to guide teams through peering into the future to see possible outcomes of our next big product release, feature update or upcoming sprint.

Time to reach into the retrospective activities library and set up a futurespective.

What is a futurespective?

A futurespective is an inverted retrospective format where, instead of reflecting on the past to identify ways to become more effective, the team starts with the goal before them — from major product releases to achieving the next sprint goal — and explores ways to achieve it in the future. A futurespective asks the team to peer into the future at upcoming increments, product releases or team events to identify goals, articulate what success looks like, and identify potential obstacles. While a retrospective looks back at events that have already happened, a futurespective looks to a point in the future to identify goals, potential risks and solutions. A futurespective could cover a wider breadth of time than a retrospective if the focus is a multi-sprint project.

When should a futurespective be used?

Futurespectives are effective both for long term projects such as prior to kicking off multi sprint effort or spinning up a new scrum team, as well as more immediate needs like simply trying to deliver on a committed sprint goal.Potential times to consider running a futurespective are:

  • Prepping the team for a major product release or update.
  • Creating team goals together — especially if the team is new.
  • Reminding the team of an end goal in the midst of a difficult project.
  • Proactively managing future risks and dependencies.
  • Visualizing what success looks like.

No matter the adversary the team wants to conquer, the futurespective will guide the team to focus on solutions instead of problems.

Why are futurespectives effective?

Stephen Covey’s second habit in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Begin With the End in Mind.” Futurespectives leverage this practice by starting with the goal, or the desired outcome and guides the team towards that future state while exploring past outcomes and learnings along the way. The futurespective centers on enhancing solutions, inspects what is going “well” and emphasizes what the team wants. Through this, the futurespective also inspires the team to prepare a goal-oriented, solution-based mindset. By focusing on solutions the team seeks innovation, surfaces what matters most and brings them together with a common sense of purpose. 

How to facilitate a futurespective

If futurespectives are a new concept, no need to worry. Follow these simple steps to set up and facilitate:

  • Start by having the team imagine they are at a point in the future, their goals have been reached and now they are having a final retrospective to discuss the insights. Keeping with our Doctor Strange metaphor, here is an example of how to set up the Futurespective.

“Pretend you’re Doctor Strange from the Avengers and you use the Time Stone to travel to the future and view our product release and you see it was a significant success. What are the things you notice that tell you the product release was successful? What did the team do along the way to achieve this?” 

The team can also discuss the benefits received from achieving their goals and even celebrate their success. This builds awareness on the importance of reaching goals and builds the why behind the goals.

  • Next, the team reflects on their imaginary past by identifying not only what facilitated success but also what obstacles they overcame that slowed them down or what made it difficult to reach their goals. At this point in the Futurespective, any number of retrospective activities can be used to elicit items from the team — Went Well Did Not Go Well, the Four Ls, Sailboat, Starfish, Mad Glad Sad, etc.
  • Finally, the team comes back to the present and agrees on what actions can be taken in order to reach their goals.

Capture the outcomes from the Futurespective and review them often with the team as it moves toward achieving the goal. If the product release covers multiple sprints, resurface the futurespective outputs to level set how the team is doing regarding the imagined successes. If it is a more immediate need, leverage team stand ups to ask questions related to the futurespective outcomes. Check in to confirm the ideas, activities and events that led to the imagined success are happening.

The next time your team of product delivery superheroes is embarking on their next big release or simply wanting a successful sprint, use your agile scrum master powers and use your agile Time Stone — the futurespective. It will give the team the power to start with the goal in mind, focus on solutions, imagine successful outcomes and rally them to the cause.

What are your Futurespective experiences?

Have you used futurespectives with your team? If so, have you used them to kick off large efforts, prior to sprints or in other ways? What techniques have you used to facilitate futurespectives? What has worked with your team and what have you learned? Please share your thoughts!

Agree to Disagree

Do you know someone that disagrees with everything you or anyone else says? Some people are pathologically wired to push back. It makes no difference if it’s on a subject they know nothing about, they’re operating assumption is that everyone, and I mean everyone, is lying to them or has an ax to grind or is flat out stupid.

What do you do with such folk?

Promote them.

Invite them to every meeting. Keep them at all costs; these are the folks—and this is the type of thinking—that will make you better.

We’re not Leaving

I once worked for a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force who was our unit’s Director of Operations (DO). The DO in a unit is the chief operating officer, the one who ensures the unit accomplishes its mission. It is his hind end that’s on the line when things go south.

In his daily staff meeting, this particular DO would not make a decision until someone disagreed with him. He would say something like this: “If this is a dumb idea, I am going to look bad and will be very upset with the people in this room. So we’re not leaving until someone disagrees with me.” An awkward silence would ensue until someone timidly offered up some criticism. Then someone else. Soon there would be a full-blown, pros and cons discussion on the issue. Then the DO would decide. Many times he would stick with the original plan, but now he knew a couple of things. He knew how his staff really felt about the issue. And he also knew more ways that things could go wrong and how to mitigate the damage if it did.

This worked because the boss encouraged critical thinking and was not threatened by criticism.

The Science is So Sound

We want people to like us. We avoid conflict and disagreement. And sometimes we’re threatened by contrary opinions. It’s not intuitive, but we need people in our lives who disagree with us. What we need in many cases is that dissenting voice.

There are a couple of reasons this is a good thing

First of all, and maybe most obviously, is that if you and I agree on everything, one of us isn’t necessary. I mean, seriously. What’s the point?

Criticism helps us to improve our understanding. It forces us to confront ideas and concerns that never occur to us. It exposes our hidden assumptions and presuppositions.

Criticism also improves our creativity, especially if we are the critic in the scenario. Accordingly, Psychiatry Professor Robert Bilder says, “Be willing to be disagreeable. There is a negative correlation between the level of creativity and ‘agreeableness,’ so those who are the most disagreeable tend to be the most creative.” (Quoted by Barbara Oakley on page 50 of A Mind For Numbers.)

Finally, criticism can help the group be more productive. Barbara Oakley, creator of the massively popular Learning How To Learn Coursera course says this: “Those you study with should have, at least on occasion, an aggressively critical edge to them. Research on creativity in teams has shown that nonjudgmental, agreeable interactions are less productive than sessions where criticism is accepted and even solicited as part of the game.” A Mind for Numbers, pp. 236-7.

You Cannot Be Serious

Are you seriously suggesting, Ken, that we are better when we have naysaying, captious, negative people on board that oppose everything we want to do and have nary a good word to say about anyone?

As appealing as that sounds, no, that’s not what I’m saying. There’s a difference between being predisposed to push back because you are by nature skeptical and questioning, and being disagreeable because you have an ax to grind, you have serious personal or emotional issues, or you’re just a terrible person. Toxic people are normally intentionally toxic and are much to be avoided.

Beware of Toxic Agreement

What we don’t often think about is that “yes persons,” sycophantic yeasayers, can be toxic as well. If you are standing there naked while everyone around you fawns over your beautiful clothing (as in The Emperor’s New Clothes), you are a little, um, exposed. As a leader in this situation, you aren’t able to distinguish fantasy from reality. This is the very definition of a Fool’s Paradise. And it is precisely the situation my DO sought to avoid. And we would do well to avoid it too.

Ergo, don’t be afraid of pushback.

And don’t be afraid to push back. If you are an agreeable sort, then try a little disagreement on for size. A little skepticism can be a healthy thing!

Who knows? It might get your promoted!