Timeline Mapping

When we think about the flow of time, we typically do so through spatial visualization, which is also reflected in our language:

  • The past is behind us, and the future is ahead.
  • A review looks back into the past, while a forecast looks into the future.
  • We usually imagine the present as where we are right now.

When we visualize a timeline, the past is usually on the left and the future on the right. This is how we often present it in presentations and graphics. These mental and spatial constructs can be effectively used in change management.

Cognitive Timeline Work

There are many thinking, planning, and facilitation formats that represent a form of cognitive timeline work.

Common business-related exercises for reviewing the past include:

  • Reviews
  • Retrospectives
  • Lessons Learned
  • Annual Reviews (and other types of reflections)

Common business-related exercises for planning the future include:

  • Visioning
  • Strategic Planning
  • Goal Setting
  • Project Planning
  • Change Architectures


One form of cognitive timeline work we frequently use in workshops or coaching is the Goal Timeline.

Here, a point in space (or on paper) is marked to represent the goal. Ideally, the „goal feeling“ and a clear vision of the desired state are activated. (What do you see at the goal? What do you hear? What do you feel? What do you think?).

Reverse-Design Timeline: Steps can be traced backward from the goal, e.g., “What was the last step before the goal was achieved?” and “What was the step before that?” back to the present day.

Forward-Design Timeline: Alternatively, steps can be planned from today to the goal.

Pseudo-Orientation in Time

In coaching, when we talk about time travel interventions, we mean more than just everyday temporal orientation. In everyday life, we talk about the past and future while being aware that we are in the present, at the „zero point“ of the timeline. We remain in objective temporal orientation.

Milton Erickson (and others before him) used the concept of pseudo-orientation in time therapeutically, asking clients to act as if NOW is already the FUTURE (time progression) or as if NOW is a moment in the PAST (regression). The Miracle Question is also a form of pseudo-orientation in time, as it operates on the assumption that the desired future has already occurred.

Journey Through Solution Times

Gunther Schmidt offers a perspective on the timeline within the context of a consulting or coaching process:

  1. The trigger for seeking consultation is often a negative feeling in the here and now. The current reality is experienced as a gap between the desired and the actual state, often accompanied by feelings like stress, pressure, fear, guilt, anger, restlessness, etc.
  2. An important initial task for the consultant is pacing the client’s perceived distress. Acknowledging the difficulties and valuing the client’s perseverance can make a significant difference by interrupting patterns of self-devaluation.
  3. The next step is to inquire about the „desired future experience,“ which also addresses the coaching goals and updates them in an initial iteration. The Miracle Question can bring important information to the surface. Clients often initially focus on…
  4. …examples of the problem from the past. The consultant can pay particular attention to previous attempts at solutions and recurring beliefs, values, identity statements, metaphors, submodalities, positive intentions, and existing competencies. The resources contained within the problem (skills, resilience, etc.) can be mirrored back to the client.
  5. Another question from the consultant may target positive exceptions in the past, identifying „previous patterns of success“ that often come with resourceful states.
  6. The next step is to transfer these patterns of success (including submodalities, inner team aspects, focus, physiology, inner dialogue, beliefs, values, etc.) to the future (future pace). During this process, clients might…
  7. …express fears about failing in the future. These thoughts can be effectively paced, especially if framed as sensible and smart scenarios rather than catastrophizing or negative spirals. By competently handling scenario planning, clients can gain…
  8. …valuable insights on how to manage future ambivalence in a protective and helpful manner (secondary goals instead of ideal goals, learning goals instead of performance goals).
  9. The impact of these thoughts is naturally felt in the present (the brain does not know past or future, it always lives in the now). Therefore, the focus can finally be placed on creating a positive difference in the present, with corresponding changes in physiology, focus, and inner dialogue. Usually, this also improves access to one’s resources.

To conclude such a journey through solution times, the transfer with corresponding tasks and/or reflections can be discussed.

How to Apply the Method

Analog methods encourage expansive thinking. Therefore, it is often useful to use broad and open language.

Selection/Creation:

  • „Choose an image from the collection that spontaneously resonates with you regarding topic XY.“
  • „Some images might seem less fitting at first glance, while others might feel more appropriate.“
  • „Often, it is a spontaneous gut feeling, a smile, or an inner nod that helps with the selection.“

Description:

  • „What do you spontaneously associate with the picture? What thoughts or feelings does it evoke?“
  • „What comes to mind when you look at this picture?“
  • „What parallels or connections can you draw between the picture and the topic? Or do you notice more differences?“

Solution Orientation:

  • „What helpful, empowering, or flexible elements can you see in this picture?“
  • „What helpful, empowering, or flexible elements could you add to this picture?“
  • „Which of these elements could provide useful impulses beyond the picture?“
  • „How could these impulses be utilized?“

Additional Helpful Language Patterns to Stimulate Thinking Without Specific Content:

  • „…and what else?
  • „…or maybe something entirely different?“
  • „…what might need more? …and what might need less?“

To conclude such a journey through solution times, the transfer with corresponding tasks and/or reflections can be discussed once again.

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