The Power of Backcasting

It was 1977 that Draper Kauffman visited The Learning Exchange, an organization a friend and I had founded. Draper was a futurist and when visiting Kansas City someone suggested he visit the Learning Exchange. We had several hours together sharing our thoughts about how unprepared students were to think about relevant futures for themselves. Draper had been with the Rand Corporation, a futures think tank. He was horrified by the gulf between what was being taught in schools and the world that was unfolding in which students would find themselves. Over dinner with Matt (Taylor) and me, Draper got to talking about how he learned to trick the mind into opening up and allowing itself to play with the future.

Draper left the Rand Corporation and secured his doctorate in education, specifically to teach teachers how to engage the future in grades K through 12. He had a hunch and he wanted to run experiments. When working with a classroom of 5th And 6th grade teachers, he handed out as assignment that simply ask the teachers to write the rest of the story. Each handout had a paragraph beginning the story. For all, the task was to make up a story based on this vague first paragraph. Draper left the classroom and retuned about 20 minutes later. Many of the teachers were just sitting, having written very little. Others were several pages into their story. He asked them to share their experience of writing. What none of them knew was that half the teacher’s paragraphs were written in past tense, the other half in future tense. With few exceptions, teachers who had past tense had fun and wrote many paragraphs making up the story as they went along. But those writing future tense struggled imagining a story that was yet to take place. This discovery led Draper to teach his course very differently.

Draper began to teach modeling to his students. Most of them had no idea how to create models in their imagination… or how to use models in their thinking processes. To his students, the future was something left to the experts, to be proven right or wrong over time. The future was made up of facts just like in their history books, not possibilities and imagination.

And it gave Matt and me an important insight. This is how the axiom "you can't get There from Here, but you can get Here from There" originated.

When you begin to frame the future from the present, all kinds of blocks show up. The present is full of the here and now and of many reasons change is not possible. Very little of our school life is composed for facilitating imagination and foresight. It is based on learning facts and facts are only within the past, or the here and now. It is based on test scores and right or wrong. To ease the tension, Matt and I decided that the first paragraph we wrote, from which participants would use as a baseline, would insure success. It would ask participants to remember their success story.

Draper's work was an important influencer in the development of our method and process. The importance of modeling, playing with ideas, assuming success became core principles in our work.

(Draper's book, Teaching the Future, is an important book and still very relevant. It is, however almost impossible to find. Our “Curriculum for the 21st Century” was also inspired by his work.)

This morning this article on Peter Drucker showed up in my in box. Drucker was quite good at envisioning THERE and bringing it to his HERE. 

- Gail

A timeline of the use and spread of the term "Group Genius"

1980: Inspired by her observations and reflections on her time teaching second grade in the late 1960’s and her exposure to the work of Lawrence Halprin, Gail Taylor coins the term. It finds its way into the business planning documents and collateral of Taylor Associates in the early 1980's.

1997: Fast Company Magazine publishes Group Genius, a feature article on Matt and Gail Taylor and the DesignShop process they created with MG Taylor Corporation (formerly Taylor Associates).

1998: Leaping the Abyss: Putting Group Genius to Work, by Chris Peterson and Gayle Pergamit published by Knowhere Press. This book was the first, comprehensive mass market publication detailing the MG Taylor frameworks, processes and methods. Currently unavailable in print at a reasonable price, the book is available for free online.

1999: The Foresight Institute, where Leaping the Abyss authors were Senior Associates, hosts Group Genius Weekend at the Knowhere Store in Palo Alto, California. This marked the first appearance of the Group Genius logo (pictured below right) created by Christopher Fuller and Claire Arias.

2000: The inaugral "Group Genius Awards" are presented by MG Taylor to individuals, event teams, and NavCenters that exemplify Group Genius in how they work and release creativity in groups.

Around 2004, Architectz of Group Genius forms as a design consultancy in Milan, Italy, inspired by the work and methodology of Matt and Gail Taylor.

2007: Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration by Keith Sawyer, a renowned and highly regarded scholar on the science of creativity, is published. So far as we can tell, this is the first public appearance of the term not directly connected with the original usage of the term, though the context and meaning has much overlap. The book has been well received and is typically receives the highest Google page rank when doing a search for “group genius."

2014: The Difference Australia, a subsidary of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, launches a promotional video that appropriates the term, indirectly referencing the Taylor methodology as a core source of their own methodology. Gail and Matt are frequent advisors, educators and co-designers to The Difference Australia team.

2014: Tomorrow Maker Todd Johnston appears at TEDx Livermore and gives a Talk on several of the core conditions that contribute to the realization of Group Genius.


TEDx Livermore: Uncorking Creativity with Group Genius

Screenshot from Todd's TEDx Livermore Talk via LivestreamNote: The following is the written version of my talk at TEDxLivermore: Uncorking Creativity on September 20, 2014. When the talk is available online, a link will be posted here.


Good morning.

I want to begin with a simple assertion:

To be human is to be creative..

It is in our nature. Unlike batteries, creativity is included in the package.

Now, we may each have our own means of expressing this creativity, and our own perception of our creativity relative to other people may vary.

And, certainly, good arguments have been made that as we grow up and are socialized into the world, our abilities to tap into and express our creativity may diminish if they are not developed and practiced.

But at a fundamental level, whether it is expressed by baking cakes or writing code, painting portraits or snapping selfies, architecting buildings or building businesses, we are all innately and unavoidably creative.

And it is this creativity which lies within each of us that has largely brought about and enabled the world we live in, with all of it’s incredible in its beauty, sophistication and capability.

And, we have no reason not to think that immeasurable good things will continue to be brought into the world with this creative force.

And yet...

The sum of our creativity is not enough.

It is not enough to solve for the kind of complex problems that we, as a species have and will continue to create as a natural course of our lives.

It is not going to be enough to solve the challenges that matter most in our organizations, institutions, communities, ecosystems and so forth..

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Wayfinding our way into the future

"Adaptation is the act of bending a structure to fit a new hole. Evolution, on the other hand, is a deeper change that reshapes the architecture of the structure itself – often producing more holes for others.

Every worker dabbling in artificial evolution has been struck by the ease with which evolution produces the improbable. Evolution doesn’t care about what makes sense; it cares about what works!" Tom Ray, Out of Control by Kevin Kelly, page 340

Historically, wayfinding refers to the techniques used by travelers over land and sea to find relatively unmarked and often mislabeled routes.

Since we are traveling into an unknown future, a good wayfinding process can help us decide when, how, and where to go. It can help us find unmarked and often mislabeled routes deep into future opportunities, perhaps helping us avoid treacherous paths and dangerous assumptions. Wayfinders help mark the way for others to follow.

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Creating a Clue-Based Curriculum

CLUE: ORIGIN late Middle English : variant of clew . The original sense was [a ball of thread] ; hence one used to guide a person out of a labyrinth (literally or figuratively).

I watch my two-year old grandson, Owen, pick up clues. That is how he learns, everyday, every moment. His life is discovery and feedback. He explores, by trial and error, tries again and succeeds or fails. He watches for clues from others ... facial expressions, body language ... and then he repeats until he grasps and understands and incorporates it into his behavior or rejects it as something not useful at the moment. He also sends me clues. He engages me in make-believe stories. Since his language is still Oweneese, which I sometimes cannot understand, he gives clues by taking my hand and showing me. Owen is quite bright and capable but I don't think he understands the word "answer" yet. Hopefully as he grows and creates his own life, he will come to know that there are answers for a few things like 2+2 is 4, but for most of his life he will continue looking and connecting clues as he journeys forth into the vast unknown.

Learning is both fast and slow. Facts are fast and can be tested in the present moment; slow is a long journey, absorbing and digesting facts within a much longer time span. Slow is carried forward by context and the ability to connect clues along the way.  Slow delights in discovering more, in reshaping one's facts throughout the course of life.  Facts remembered can save lives in the moment.(redcross learning, calling 911, seeking safety in a tornado). Fast and slow learning is essential to the well-prepared mind.  Unfortunately, too much of today's education for all ages seems to be on fast fact learning. Given this focus, how many facts are immediately forgotten after only a short period? Fast to learn; fast to forget.  Since the slow is not immediately measureable, it does not seem to have as much credibility. Taken together, however, the fast and slow weave together bonding facts with context and learning by doing... learning through life.

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Following the Paradigm Shift

A Paradigm Shift is when a significant change happens - usually from one fundamental view to a different view. In most cases, some type of major discontinuity occurs as well.

Thomas Kuhn wrote about Paradigm Shift during the early 1960s, and explained how "series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions" caused "one conceptual world view to be replaced by another view."

In laymen terms, Paradigm Shift is a popular, or perhaps, not so popular shift or transformation of the way we Humans perceive events, people, environment, and life altogether. It can be a national or international shift, and could have dramatic effects -- whether positive or negative -- on the way we live our lives today and in the future. Compiled by Carol Ann Bailey-Lloyd

All of the MG Taylor models are recursive and fractal in nature. The models can be applied at many different levels. While the model of the creative process is most often used at an individual or enterprise level, it equally applies to a global paradigm shift. In 1979 when Matt and I brought our ideas and visions together to create MGTaylor, we started tracking the evolution of what we then were calling the Information Economy. We were watching the birthing of a new science paradigm being formed from quantum physics, cybernetic systems, and complexity science. We watched ideas begin to spread outside theoretical papers and move into more lay-science articles and magazines. Authors began taking the work of these scientists and working them into adjacent fields and into everyday technology. Metaphors began to appear to help ordinary folks like me come to know at least a sense of what was forming. Some religions and science began thinking together, coming full cycle with universal ideas. One early book I can remember is The Tao of Physics. In 1990, Danah Zohar wrote The Quantum Self, a landmark book for me. Suddenly the 1990s were rich with books and stories. Two of my favorites are Out of Control, by Kevin Kelly, and Leadership and the New Science by Meg Wheatley. I draw on these books continuously.

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Lilly-Pad Economics

We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.
R. D. Laing

I remember years ago (1962-65) when I was teaching second graders by showing pictures of a pond with one lilly pad on day 1; two on day two; four on day three, etc.  Young eyes drew large when the metaphor revealed that one day after the pond was half full, ti was full! "No way" they exclaimed.  That's when we began our own experiment accumulating rice at an exponential rate. Each day one of the students would double the grains of rice. One corner of the room got quite full and each day it took the student longer to count out the grains.  I also challenged the class to estimate how far an adding machine roll of tape would go. Such a small roll. Students estimated that one role would cross the classroom, about 35 feet.  WOW ... all the way to the principal's office! How could that be as they unrolled and unrolled. We talked about compounding interest and other such things ... project learning for 7 year olds.  We all learned a lot that year. Young minds learned to think about patterns and I think they came to know that being surprised about their assumptions was a very good thing. 

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Spark Card: Finding New Search Images

We are prepared to see, and we see easily, things for which our language and culture hand us ready-made labels. When those labels are lacking, even though the phenomena may be all around us, we may quite easily fail to see them at all. The perceptual attractors that we each possess are the filters through which we scan and sort reality, and thereby they determine what we perceive on high and low levels. - Douglas Hofstadter
todd_0755.jpgHofstadter's 'perceptual attractors' are what we call search images. These images are the perceptual cues we look for to identify and assess the systems that make up our world. Kevin Kelly's Out of Control, Chapter 4: Assembling Complexity, provides a great example by telling the story of what ecologist Steve Packard learned over numerous attempts to grow a prairie from scratch. He has some of the necessary search images going into his exploration, but they proved insufficient:

... He felt yet another ingredient must be missing which prevented a living system from snapping together. He started reading the botanical history of the area and studying the oddball species...

"What the heck is this?" he'd asked the botanist. "It's not in the books, it's not listed in the state catalogue of species. What is it?" The botanist had said, "I don't know. It could be a savanna blazing star, but there aren't any savannas here, so it couldn't be that. Don't know what is." What one is not looking for, one does not see.

... An epiphany of sorts overtook Packard when he watched the piles of his seed accumulate in his garage. The prairie seed mix was dry and fluffy-like grass seed. The emerging savanna seed collection, on the other hand, was "multicolored handfuls of lumpy, oozy, glop," ripe with pulpy seeds and dried fruits. Not by wind, but by animals and birds did these seeds disperse. The thing -- the system of coevolved, interlocking organisms -- he was seeking to restore was not a mere prairie, but a prairie with trees: a savanna... once Packard got a "search image" of the savanna in his mind, he began to see evidence of it everywhere.

What search images are you using to identify the key ingredients and instructions for assembling the project or venture you're working on?

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Spark Card: Build A Model

Words - whether exchanged through conversation or composed into a written document - can get us only so far in expressing ideas. Our words are abstractions that live purely in our heads, and rely upon shared, implicit assumptions of what they mean and represent.

Get out of your heads and put your hands to work!

Use any physical materials you have available and build a three-dimensional model of your idea. Make it as detailed and explicit as you can - bring the idea that lives in your head to life in the space where your working.

Our are typically outfitted with “modeling kits” for just this purpose. These may include items such as clay, foam, wire, string, construction paper, popsickle sticks, egg cartons, wooden dowels, straws, sacks, glue, tape, and all sorts of other odds and ends. In our view, no social or group meeting space is complete without resources and tools that enable 3-dimensional model building.

This is the fourth in a series of Spark Cards being published to the Tomorrow Makers Journal.

Spark Card: Why It Won't Work

Having doubts about an idea? Do you see gaps, oversights, unsound assumptions? Is there an elephant in the room that no one is talking about?

Take 10 minutes and storm a WorkWall (or whatever whiteboard you have available) with all the reasons the idea in front of you just won’t work. Don’t try to refute or defend your reasons - just let them all pour forth.

After you’ve exhausted your selves of why it won’t work, step back and take a look at all the reasons you've listed.

Cluster them into groups of likeness & similarity. For each cluster, what are the underlying assumptions and reasonings?

Which are rooted in fear - fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of what other people may think or do? Which of these clusters are within your power to change? This is where to focus your energy -  turn these ‘reasons for failure’ into design specifications for success!

This is the third in a series of Spark Cards being published to the Tomorrow Makers Journal.

Spark Card: Humor Yourselves

“If you can’t have fun with the problem, you will never solve it.”
- MG Taylor Axiom

"No ha-ha, no ah-ha."
- My version of the same

Humor plays a huge role in our ability to solve problems.  When two or more ideas come together in an unexpected way, they can cause surprise and delight -- our minds reframe. Humor can help us realize totally new emergent ideas.  

Jokes are a good example of this, where two seemingly conflicting ideas come together and are resolved by "getting the joke." At the moment you get the joke, the tension from the initial conflict dissolves in laughter.

 Take a few minutes and share some jokes with each other.

Now, take a few minutes and create some jokes about the ideas you are playing with.

This is the second in a series of Spark Cards being published to the Tomorrow Makers Journal. 

Spark Card: The Big World of Possibilities

First, to answer the question, "What is a Spark Card?"

A Spark Card is a tool for perturbing imagination, furthering ideas,  and seeing with fresh eyes.

Gail and I began developing them for our Collaboratory at Sonoma Mountain Village that we share with the Livability Project. We have a set of 12 and have sketched out as many more. Spark Cards are part of the Collaboratory’s way of working. With this post, we'll begin publishing them in journal form. Look for a downloadable deck in the near future.

These cards can help you facilitate yourselves -- a task which is often very difficult.  Even high performance teams and groups get so focused on immediate tasks at hand that they forget to reach out, to explore an idea from different vantage points. Think of Spark Cards as a Creative Whack Pack for collaboration. Use them to begin your meeting, or at a point where you feel stuck or stale.  They can also help you take a last look at your work. They serve as a check to what really matters about your enterprise and the immediate next steps.  

In our haste to succeed with deliverables and goals, we tend to race to the finish line.  These Spark Cards are meant to entice you to “make haste slowly”. They have been proven to save time and enrich the products and services being developed.  

Happy perturbing! May you have meaningful, rich, worthy conversations!

Without further adieu, our first card...


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Designing Design: The Weeble Principle


If you're an American between the ages of 5 and 50, or the parent of children within this demographic, chances are you are familiar with Weebles®, and their catchy slogan:

"Weebles wobble but they don't fall down!"

And sure enough, try as you might to knock one over, inevitably it will right itself. Well, it turns out these little guys not only provide youngsters with hours of fascination, they also provide a valuable principle for process & event designers:

Create a design that won't fall apart when it takes an unexpected hit.

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Designing Design: Take 3 SiPs

Russian.dolls.hugeset.arp.jpgMaintain at least 3 Systems-In-Play throughout the process you are designing. Generally speaking, I'll call these "metasystem," "system-in-focus," and "nested system."

The system in focus is the system we intend to most directly engage and influence. It is through this system that we expect to form the basis for the decisions and actions that the design process evokes in the participants.

A metasystem is one that contains the system in focus as well as others in an integrated fashion. Wikipedia offers a useful description:

"A metasystem is formed by the integration of a number of initially independent components, such as molecules, cells or individiduals, and the emergence of a system steering or controlling their interactions. As such, the collective of components becomes a new, goal-directed individual, capable of acting in a coordinated way. This metasystem is more complex, more intelligent, and more flexible in its actions than the initial component systems."

A nested system is, of course, a system that is one of many component systems that are all integrated into the system in focus. 

In essence, what I'm saying here is engage with your design as if it were a matryoshka, albeit probably not quite at the depth of pictured above.

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