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.
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.
- 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.
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