Snowball draws out peoples’ creativity through idea generation. It is a good way to quickly identify the key opportunities and risks inherent in an issue and to identify specific types of experts and expertise (both general and specific) in the external environment.

Uses of the method

  • Typically used at the beginning of a foresight project to flesh out the topic question and to find experts. 


  • Fast understanding of the issues behind questions that need answering
  • Valuable method to ensure that all the relevant issues have been considered
  • Systematic, comprehensive and multi-purpose
  • Fast and ultra-low cost
  • Can be used by both individual analysts and teams
  • Members of these populations have not all been previously identified and are more difficult to locate or contact than known populations


  • May be incomplete if not used with other methods or iterations do not go deep enough.

Steps to complete

  • Start with a coherent question [about “X”], and a reason for wanting to know that is sufficiently credible that it will motivate potential respondents to share both information that is as yet unpublished, and sensitive information that will never be published.
  • Identify a small sample of particularly knowledgeable people.
  • Ask of each: a. What do you know about “X”? b. Who else should I ask about “X”etc. - in particular, really bright people at the fringes of or beyond the currently dominant paradigm?
  • Sort the given ideas into priority order or a logical order and your recommenced experts into those with most mentions and expertise.
  • Determine the fixed factors (almost certain hard trends) that will inform your strategic response: slow-changing phenomena e.g. demographic shifts, constrained situations e.g. resource limits, in the pipeline e.g. aging of baby boomers, inevitable collisions e.g. climate change arguments.
  • Capture variable factors: critical uncertainties i.e. variables, soft trends and potential surprises. Both these and the fixed elements will be key to creating scenarios and examining potential future paradigm shifts.
  • Capture unique insight into new ways of seeing that can be utilized by the organization. What are the advantages and disadvantages?
  • What conclusions can we draw from the exercise(s)?
    • How might the future be different?
    • How does A affect B?
    • What is likely to remain the same or change significantly?
    • What are the likely outcomes?
    • What and who will likely shape our future?
    • Where could we be most affected by change?
    • What might we do about it?
    • What don't we know that we need to know?
    • What should we do now, today?
    • Why do we care?
    • When should we aim to meet on this?
  • Finish by noting your next steps. Next steps could include a further round of iteration, a recommendation on how to get the answers or use of other research and methods such as 'Starburst' to create more vantage points on the issue. Repeat the exercise from a different perspective e.g., taking a negative view or an unusual position, or from the viewpoint of another stakeholder. (see the Tear-Down thinking method here).

This method and your response can be shared with other members or kept private using the 'Privacy' field and through the 'Tag', 'Report' and 'Forum' functionalities. Use 'Tag' and/or 'Report' to aggregate your analyzes, or add a 'Forum' to ask others where they agree/disagree and encourage them to make their own analysis from their unique vantage point.

Click the 'Invite tab to send invitations to other members or non-members (colleagues, external experts etc.) to ask for their input. You can whether or not you want anonymous responses.  These can be viewed and exported within the Responses tab.

Further reference

  • A new methodology for anticipating STEEP surprises, Oliver Markley, Elsevier, 2011
  • Peer Esteem Snowballing: A methodology for expert surveys, by Dimitrios Christopoulos
  • Snowball Sampling, Fort Collins Sampling Centre


Snowball sampling was described by Coleman, 1958; Goodman, 1961; and Spreen, 1992. Snowball sampling is a method typically used with unknown or rare populations.

Contact us
Even with all the advice and tools we have provided here starting a foresight project from scratch can be a daunting prospect to a beginner. Let us know if you need help with this method or want a group facilitation exercise or full project or program carrying out by us. We promise to leave behind more internal knowledgeable people who can expand your initiative for better organizational performance.

Contact us today for a free discussion on your needs.

Are there other enhancements or new methods you would like to see here? Let us know and we will do our best to respond with a solution quickly.

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