The Backward-Forward Flip exercise confronts head-on our tendency to believe we will not make the same mistakes that others made before us. We look backward at the transformative events in our industry, focusing on those that conventional industry thinking of the time discounted. We then look forward to current ideas that industry conventional wisdom is not taking seriously.
Why the Backward-Forward Flip Triggers Insight
The confirmation bias tells us that we look for evidence that we are correct. The backward-forward flip is a simple exercise designed to get a group to simultaneously consider being wrong and right. This exercise is a translation of research that has shown it is possible to counteract the hindsight bias—a form of the confirmation bias in which we believe we could have predicted a particular outcome beforehand by confronting and examining contrary evidence and explicitly taking an outsider’s perspective.[i]
The group starts by dissecting the arguments for and against the success of some transformative moment from their industry’s past. This process is then replicated on a current debate occurring within their industry. There is no need to over-complicate this exercise. I have seen this exercise lead to fundamentally exciting insights about the current state of an innovation. I’ve also seen this exercise trigger little more than a fun conversation with little insight. It takes little time, and the upside potential for the conversation makes that time investment worthwhile. One word of caution though: this exercise works best when working with people who have extensive industry experience.
Steps of the Backward-Forward Flip Exercise
Step 1: Identify a surprise event from the industry past.
Identify two to three industry surprises defined as events, shifts, or innovations that were not predicted, or even expected at all, by conventional industry wisdom.
Step 2: List justifications for conventional wisdom—past.
List all the reasons industry experts gave at the time to explain why this event would not happen.
Step 3: Ask why conventional wisdom was wrong—past.
List all the reasons industry experts were wrong in their assessment. What had conventional wisdom missed?
Step 4: Identify a current potential industry shift.
Identify a high-impact industry shift that a majority of industry experts currently do not expect to occur.
Step 5: Consider why this shift will not occur.
Step 5 mirrors step 2 except that we are now considering the question as it relates to the current, potential industry shift.
Step 6: Consider why this shift will occur.
List the changes in the world that would enable and potentially trigger the industry shift to occur.
Step 7: Rank the probability of items identified in step 6.
Sort the list created in step 6 from most to least likely to occur. Starting with the most likely to occur and moving to the least likely item on the list, discuss the most likely scenario that could lead to this industry shift. What are the early indicators that the industry is moving in this direction? What organizations and individuals stand to benefit if this happens? What are those people or organizations doing right now to nudge the industry in this direction? What should your organization do to prepare for the possibility that this shift could occur?
Making Reflection an Action
The biggest barrier to learning from our past is our mindset that looking back will slow us down. All too often we do not recognize that reflecting on past actions, either successes or failures, is part of the work of innovation. Reflection is an action. This is an important framing because we have a bias toward action. One example of the action bias is that elite soccer goalkeepers have a bias toward moving during penalty kicks even when their success can be improved by standing still.[ii] The backward-forward flip technique helps make reflection action for your team.
This description of the Backward-Forward Flip exercise is adapted from Chapter 5 of Unquestioned Brilliance. For more on this and other strategic leadership techniques see Unquestioned Brilliance: Navigating a Fundamental Leadership Trap.
[i] Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischhoff, “On the Psychology of Experimental Surprises,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 3, no. 4 (1977): 544–51.
[ii] Michael Bar-Eli, Ofer H. Azar, Ilana Ritov, Yael Keidar-Levin, and Galit Schein, “Action Bias among Elite Soccer Goalkeepers: The Case of Penalty Kicks,” Journal of Economic Psychology 28, no. 5 (2007): 606–21.