Prague Astronomical Clock by Andrew Silva

A highly effective way to find breakthrough solutions to seemingly insoluable problems today is to "travel" into the future and look back at them.

A colleague shared with me today an excellent short article Robert Sutton[1] in 2019, "Imaginary Time Travel as a Leadership Tool" (MIT Sloan Management Review, 19 June 2019). In it, Dr. Sutton suggests that we sometimes can understand business and strategic problems better, as well as their implications for the future success of our business, if we "travel" months or even years into the future and try to look back at the issues from that perspective.

This is a technique that Walker Clark LLC sometimes uses when advising our clients in the legal services industry about emerging challenges or opportunities that, at the moment, seem to defy a good response. Today the problem might seem too risky, too uncertain, or beyond an organization's capabilities. By engaging in imaginary time travel and envisioning the problem as solved, we often can understand better how to solve it. It is an important tool in our facilitation of Future SearchTM planning conferences for law firms and legal services organizations.

This is not "wave the magic wand' or other wishful-thinking parlor games that business consultants sometime promote. Instead, it has a solid basis in research. In some respects, it is the opposition of "visioning." As Robert Sutton explains in his article:

...[L]eaders can use imaginary time travel for more than fueling good feelings and constructive optimism and persistence. Some use it to identify dangerous risks and delusions in order to avert future failures, through “failure premortems.” The premortem is psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s favorite method for making better decisions (he credits psychologist Gary Klein for inventing and developing it). A failure premortem works something like this: Leaders and their teams are asked to imagine that it is, say, a year after they’ve made a decision, and that the decision turned out to be a massive and unambiguous failure. The leader asks people to imagine looking back from that terrible future to develop detailed lists and stories about what happened and why.

Preemptive premortems improve decisions in part because dissecting an event as if it did happen rather than might happen makes it seem more concrete and likely to really occur, which motivates people to devote greater attention to understanding its nuances. Experiments by marketing professor Deborah J. Mitchell and her colleagues found that, compared with looking ahead at an event that might occur, imagining that the same event has already occurred “increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.” In addition, when a premortem is convened by a trusted leader, naysayers and pessimists feel free to speak their minds. A well-run premortem creates a competition where people score points for identifying risks and obstacles that others haven’t. As psychologist Klein put it: “The whole dynamic changes from trying to avoid anything that might disrupt harmony to trying to surface potential problems.”

Anticipating the future -- indeed, anticipating probable alternative futures -- is a critically important skill for lawyers and their practices in the fast-changing business environments of the 2020. Techniques like imaginary time travel and pre-mortems can produce insights and innovative paths to the future that would not otherwise be apparent today.

Norman Clark

For more information about how Walker Clark LLC can help your legal services organization -- even a solo practice -- anticipate and prepare for the future, click here to learn about our strategic planning and implementation services.

[1] Robert Sutton is an organizational psychologist and professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, where he also codirects the Designing Organizational Change initiative. Links to his work are online at