Defining key factors helps to focus a conversation on what can make a strategy succeed or fail in the 'micro' or local environment. These factors can come from the past and/or the present and they should ideally be based on data, direct experiences and strong shared assumptions. This technique distills what is crucial to exist for an idea to be successful, as well as what might be the prominent threats and consequences.

At FoAM we use this technique for organisations, collectives or families with a shared culture and knowledge, in workshops on clearly defined issues (e.g. designing projects, (re)defining collaboration, organisational strategy, etc.). In such situations this technique helps to map out the opportunities and challenges that the group is aware of. If the factors are based on proven facts, it provides a secure basis from which the group can begin to speculate where they might want to head in the future. However, it is equally interesting to surface and discuss strong assumptions about what success might depend on.

Defining key factors one of the first steps in the GBN method

Process

This technique can be used in any type of space, as long as there is somewhere for everyone to sit. The best configuration might be a circle or semi-circle (if you are using a wall or another vertical writing surface to record the key factors). The simplest version of this technique is a moderated conversation, where you ask guiding questions to help the group define a small number of crucial factors that can make their endeavour succeed or fail. It can help to record the outcomes of the discussion, so you might need a large piece of paper or black/whiteboard and writing materials.

Step 1: Begin the exercise by framing an issue or question that is 'burning' and asking the group to think about what would make this issue (project, question, initiative, design…) succeed or fail. For example if the issue redesigning a website, key factors might be interested users, a reliable server, good quality media assets or recruiting web designer and copy-editor. It is important to define factors that the group can have some influence on, rather than talking about the external factors, such as e.g. ISP regulations, that influence the decision but are far beyond the control/influence of the group itself.

Step 2 (optional): Invite each participant to think about which factors in their immediate environment and note down a few they find most important for the issue they're exploring.

Step 3: Invite participants to suggest key factors and discuss them with the group. You, or volunteers from the group record the factors in a mind map with clear relationships between the different factors.

Step 4: Discuss the key factors and examine what might be the consequences if one or more aren't present. At the end of the exercise keep only the factors without which the issue/initiative cannot exist.

Step 5: Record and summarise.

Adapted from: Peter Schwartz, 1998, The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, Wiley