Using Hopes & Fears to Surface and Prioritize Objectives


We often tend to jump rapidly into generating solutions rater than asking ourselves why we came up with these solutions in the first place. Moreover, especially in a group setting, the alignment and shared understanding of underlying objectives is often taken for granted. This creates an inherent flaw in the Innovation (e.g. Option Generation) and Decision Making Process. In Innovator, we believe that good problem solving or product design starts with problem structuring and consensus-building around problems we are trying to solve and their relative importance.

Furthermore, we also respect that individual motivations to contribute start from factoring people's personal drivers, worries, and assumptions. Hence, our facilitators tend to use the Hopes and Fears exercise as a way to kick-off strategy and innovation workshops and excite individual perspective contribution upon which consensus to be built. Moreover, we tend to find this exercise to be a good ice-breaker that eases the further flow of ideas and communication between participants.


Everything that we do is designed to somehow contribute to the success of the intervention. Below are the objectives for our Hopes and Fears exercise.

  • Surface desirable and undesirable outcomes (objectives) from all participants
  • Surface possible problem areas and clusters (group similar inputs)
  • Build basic consensus around the above
  • Build shared understanding about constraints
  • Set basic priorities (bonus)


In Innovator, we have expanded the hopes and fears exercise to provide basic prioritization and feed into follow-on gap analysis and more robust problem solving and decision modelling. In this section you will find a step by step guide to running the exercise.

In general, it is very important to choose an appropriate room for running any workshop. For this particular exercise, you'll need a medium sized, empty wall (e.g. 4-5 meters minimum width) with free access that can vary depending on your group size.

Materials (markers and post-its/ovals) shall be distributed among all participants. Swim lanes with relevant key areas (usually determined in your initial stakeholder interviews and document reviews) are posted to the wall using tape in the following format:

An example layout of swim-lanes for Hopes and Fears

An example layout of swim-lanes for Hopes and Fears

Individual post-its are to be contributed to the swim lanes. Swim-lanes frame the contribution so that it is both (a) relevant to the project context and (b) input triggers are given for diversity of perspectives - basically, we've found out that people are better in filling in gaps than facing a blank space.  

Housekeeping rules and instructions are given before the kick-off. We generally suggest using the following baseline rules:

  1. One idea/concept per post-it/oval - If you have to use “and” it’s probably not only one idea
  2. Whenever possible, hopes and fears should be specific - For example, instead of saying “insufficient skills”, point out which skills and what it means for them to be sufficient
  3. Verifiable scenarios - One needs to have a clear-cut way of saying if a fear/hope has materialized or not
  4. Write in caps so everything can be readable and visible from reasonable distance
  5. Avoid high-context language and abbreviations – an external person such as the facilitator themselves should be able to understand what the written input is referring to
  6. Withhold judgement - everyone's hopes and fears are legitimate as they are personal. Also, this part of the exercise is about gathering perspectives, not prioritization

Between 5 and 10 minutes are given to participants to generate hopes and fears that are top of mind. It helps is a few desks/tables are positioned a few meters away from the wall as some people are uncomfortable writing while standing. In the meantime, the facilitator(s) should go around the room  and support participants in achieving quality input, clarifying requirements and helping people get over the initial “shy phase”. Energetic encouragements and positive reinforcement is helpful for making people feel comfortable. Ensuring that the inputs are formulated well with a few good examples can also help.

Towards the last 3-4 minutes of the exercise, the facilitator can start (re)organizing the entries.  

Posting inputs to a H&F exercise

At the end of the time given, the lead facilitator rings a bell and encourages participants to circle the wall for 5-10 minutes. Praise is given for the amount of contribution and energy in the room. The lead facilitator quickly goes through some of the inputs, clarifying anything that seems unreadable or not clear enough and pointing out randomly selected inputs with different handwriting. As this is happening, similar inputs are grouped together. At this point, the facilitator can encourage the participants to help cluster inputs. This part takes another 5-10 minutes depending on the number of inputs.

Usually, what remains is about 20-30 distinct topics of interest clustered together (depending on the group size). If too many topics are featured in “other” further classification may be applied and discussed. The lead facilitator notices patterns in the wall, such as high degree of concentration of certain concerns/hopes, gaps in given areas that were originally outlined as important (little or no entries), and the use of specific language.

If inputs are too much and strategizing can only be done for a select few topics, the exercise can then move towards classification and prioritization of inputs on the wall. Cluster or representative post-it per cluster are moved from the swim lanes to a coordinate system representing relative importance and likelihood. Importance is the strength of impact that a materialized hope or fear has on the organization. Likelihood signals the probability that that output materializes in the foreseeable future (E.g. 3-5 years). Before proceeding, the consultant must contextualize the exercise sufficiently to the organization's specific problem set so it is relatable. The coordinate system looks like that:



Further priority will be given to topics that end up in the top right (high-impact, high-probability) quadrant and to select topics from the top left quadrant (high-impact, low probability). The facilitator can take a note of a few topics that are highly likely, but not so important as those are developments may sometimes hide underlying complexity or unforeseen consequences. The lower left quadrant is generally inputs that can be ignored for the time being. This portion of the exercises is important whenever prioritization or timelines are necessary.

In general, the prioritization exercise should reduce the topics of concern to half or more. From here onwards, the participants can be split into groups of 3-4 (depending on overall group size), each group focusing on solutioning for a subset of 3-4 clusters. Details on solution design exercises will be given in another post.