What Is The Futures Wheel? The Futures Wheel In A Nutshell

The futures wheel was invented in 1971 by Jerome C. Glenn while he was studying at the Antioch Graduate School of Education.  The futures wheel is a brainstorming framework for visualizing the future consequences of a particular trend or event.

Methodology OverviewFutures Wheel is a strategic planning and foresight tool used to explore and visualize the potential consequences and impacts of a particular event, trend, or decision. It is a versatile technique employed in futures studies, scenario planning, and decision-making processes to better understand the interconnectedness of various factors and their implications for the future. The Futures Wheel is a visual representation that resembles a wheel, with the central event or idea at its core and multiple spokes branching out to explore related factors and consequences.
Key Components– The Futures Wheel consists of the following key components: 1. Central Event/Idea: The core of the wheel represents the central event, decision, or trend under consideration. 2. Spokes: Radiating out from the central event, each spoke represents a potential consequence or impact. 3. Secondary Consequences: On each spoke, secondary consequences or effects are listed, further branching into tertiary and quaternary consequences if necessary. 4. Relationships: Arrows or lines are used to indicate relationships between consequences and factors, showing cause-and-effect or influence connections. 5. Weights or Importance: Some versions of the Futures Wheel assign weights or importance levels to consequences to indicate their significance.
Process– The process of creating and using a Futures Wheel involves the following steps: 1. Identify the Central Event: Clearly define the central event, decision, or trend that you want to explore and understand better. 2. Brainstorm Consequences: Brainstorm potential consequences or impacts of the central event and list them on the spokes of the wheel. 3. Explore Secondary Consequences: For each consequence, further explore and list secondary consequences or effects. 4. Visualize Relationships: Use arrows or lines to indicate the relationships and connections between consequences. 5. Assess Significance: Optionally, assign weights or levels of importance to consequences to prioritize them. 6. Analyze and Strategize: Analyze the Futures Wheel to gain insights into the potential future developments, and use this information for strategic planning, decision-making, or scenario development.
Applications– Futures Wheels are applied in various contexts, including: 1. Strategic Planning: Organizations use Futures Wheels to anticipate the consequences of strategic decisions or market changes. 2. Scenario Planning: They are a valuable tool for developing scenarios to explore alternative futures. 3. Risk Assessment: Identifying potential risks and their cascading effects. 4. Policy Analysis: Governments and policymakers employ Futures Wheels to analyze the implications of policy changes. 5. Innovation: Exploring the consequences of new technologies or innovations.
Benefits– Futures Wheels offer several benefits: 1. Holistic Exploration: Provides a structured approach to exploring a wide range of consequences and their relationships. 2. Visualization: Visual representation enhances understanding and communication of complex future scenarios. 3. Decision Support: Helps decision-makers anticipate and prepare for potential future developments. 4. Creativity: Encourages creative thinking and the consideration of diverse factors. 5. Risk Mitigation: Identifies potential risks and allows for proactive risk mitigation strategies.
Challenges– Challenges in using Futures Wheels include potential oversimplification, biases in consequence identification, and the need for skilled facilitation to ensure a comprehensive and unbiased exploration of consequences.

Understanding the futures wheel

Fundamentally, the futures wheel is a simple framework providing a model of the future based on the consequences of an event or trend.

It is subjective, qualitative, and relies on the expertise or knowledge of several participants.

Put differently, the futures wheel helps the organization move from linear, hierarchical thinking to something more organic, complex, and network-oriented.

The structure of the wheel itself is based around a central event, with direct and indirect consequences radiating outward and linked together where appropriate. 

While its low complexity avoids a need for formal training, the futures wheel does require a deep understanding of the problem in question.

Only then can the generated future model be as accurate as possible.

Constructing a futures wheel

Here is a simple approach to constructing a futures wheel:

Identify the trend

Identify and then write the trend, problem, event, or potential solution in the center of a piece of paper.

Identify direct, first-order consequences

What are the direct consequences of the trend?

To stimulate ideas, it can be helpful to consider the trend as a form of change.

Write each consequence in a circle and connect it to the central trend with an arrow.

At this stage, all consequences should be listed – regardless of their likelihood of occurring.

Identify indirect, second-order consequences

What are the potential second-order consequences of each of the direct, first-order consequences?

Add them to the diagram in the same way.

Repeat the process

This step identifies third and fourth-order consequences, and so on.

Teams may use a different color for order level to better understand the relationship between each and delineate the different “spokes” of the wheel.

In general, the more strategic an event is, the greater the number of orders it will require.

Evaluate implications

One important advantage of the futures wheel is that it may identify lower-level consequences that reinforce or cause higher-level consequences.

This helps the team evaluate unexpected reinforcement mechanisms that enhance certain consequences or at least make them more likely to occur.

An evaluation may involve weighting the various implications for their likelihood of occurrence and estimated impact level. 

Prioritize and plan

The list of implications should then be sorted according to those worth responding to immediately, those worth planning for, and those worth monitoring.

Consider how each group may affect future strategy planning and make useful recommendations to key personnel.

Negative consequences require risk mitigation, while positive consequences are opportunities ripe for exploitation.

Key takeaways

  • The futures wheel is a brainstorming framework for visualizing the future consequences of a particular trend or event. It was developed by former student Jerome C. Glenn in 1971.
  • The futures wheel helps the organization move from linear, hierarchical thinking to something more organic, complex, and network-oriented. It is a simple framework to use but does rely on quality input from suitably qualified participants.
  • The futures wheel encourages teams to identify first, second, third, and fourth-order consequences of an event, trend, or solution. These can be then weighted to evaluate their likelihood of occurrence and potential impact.

Key Highlights

  • Origin and Creator:
    • Jerome C. Glenn invented the Futures Wheel in 1971 while studying at the Antioch Graduate School of Education.
  • Concept of the Futures Wheel:
    • The Futures Wheel is a brainstorming framework that aids in visualizing the potential future consequences of a specific trend, event, or decision.
    • It provides a model of the future based on the cascading effects of an event or trend, helping to move from linear thinking to a more complex, network-oriented perspective.
  • Structure and Approach:
    • The framework is subjective and qualitative, relying on the expertise of participants.
    • It features a central event, with direct and indirect consequences radiating outward and interconnected as necessary.
    • Though simple to use, constructing an accurate model requires a deep understanding of the problem or topic in question.
  • Construction Process:
    • Identify the Trend: Place the central trend, event, problem, or potential solution in the center of the diagram.
    • Direct Consequences: List direct consequences of the trend, considering it as a form of change. Connect them with arrows.
    • Indirect Consequences: Identify second-order consequences for each direct consequence, and add them to the diagram.
    • Repeat for Higher Orders: Continue this process for higher-order consequences, using different colors to distinguish levels.
    • Evaluate Implications: Identify reinforcing mechanisms between lower-level and higher-level consequences. Weigh implications for likelihood and impact.
    • Prioritize and Plan: Sort implications into categories of immediate response, planning, and monitoring. Mitigate negative consequences and exploit positive ones.
  • Benefits and Use Cases:
    • The Futures Wheel helps teams anticipate the long-term effects of decisions, trends, or events.
    • It aids in evaluating the potential impact of consequences and identifying both risks and opportunities.
    • The framework encourages thinking beyond the obvious, exploring the ripple effects of actions or changes.

Connected Analysis Frameworks

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Cost-Benefit Analysis

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CATWOE Analysis

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Blindspot Analysis


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DESTEP Analysis

A DESTEP analysis is a framework used by businesses to understand their external environment and the issues which may impact them. The DESTEP analysis is an extension of the popular PEST analysis created by Harvard Business School professor Francis J. Aguilar. The DESTEP analysis groups external factors into six categories: demographic, economic, socio-cultural, technological, ecological, and political.

STEEP Analysis

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STEEPLE Analysis

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Activity-Based Management

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Related Strategy Concepts: Go-To-Market StrategyMarketing StrategyBusiness ModelsTech Business ModelsJobs-To-Be DoneDesign ThinkingLean Startup CanvasValue ChainValue Proposition CanvasBalanced ScorecardBusiness Model CanvasSWOT AnalysisGrowth HackingBundlingUnbundlingBootstrappingVenture CapitalPorter’s Five ForcesPorter’s Generic StrategiesPorter’s Five ForcesPESTEL AnalysisSWOTPorter’s Diamond ModelAnsoffTechnology Adoption CurveTOWSSOARBalanced ScorecardOKRAgile MethodologyValue PropositionVTDF FrameworkBCG MatrixGE McKinsey MatrixKotter’s 8-Step Change Model.

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