Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future

Adam Kahane

168 pages, Berrett-Koehler, 2012

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When the Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise ended in 1992, I was left inspired and also uncertain. It was clear to me that the exercise had contributed to creating change in South Africa, but it was not clear to me whether or how this way of working could be used in other contexts. In which type of situation could transformative scenario planning be useful? To be useful, which outputs did it have to produce and which inputs did it require? And to produce these outputs, which steps were essential?

These questions set me off on an exploration that I have now been on for 20 years. After I moved to South Africa in 1993, I sought out opportunities there and elsewhere to work with people who were trying to address tough challenges. I found colleagues, and together we worked on many different projects, on different challenges, of different scales, in different countries, with different actors, using different methodologies. These experiences gave me many opportunities for trial and many opportunities for error, and so many opportunities for learning. Gradually I found answers to my questions.

When to Use Transformative Scenario Planning

The South African context that gave birth to the Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise turns out to have been a particular example of a general type of situation. Transformative scenario planning can be useful to people who find themselves in a situation that has the following three characteristics.

First, these people see the situation they are in as unacceptable, unstable, or unsustainable. Their situation may have been this way for some time, or it may be becoming this way now, or it may possibly become this way in the future. They may feel frightened or excited or confused. In any event, these people cannot or are not willing to carry on as before, or to adapt to or flee from what is happening. They think that they have no choice but to try to transform their situation. The participants in the Mont Fleur project, for example, viewed apartheid as unacceptable, unstable, and unsustainable, and saw the just-opened political negotiations as offering them an opportunity to contribute to changing it. Another, hypothetical, example might be people in a community who think that the conditions in their schools are unacceptable and want to change them.

Second, these people cannot transform their situation on their own or by working only with their friends and colleagues. Even if they want to, they are unable to impose or force through a transformation. The larger social-political-economic system (the sector or community or country) within which they and their situation are embedded is too complex—it has too many actors, too many interdependencies, too much unpredictability—to be grasped or shifted by any one person or organization or sector, even one with lots of ideas and resources and authority.1 These people therefore need to find some way to work together with actors from across the whole system.

South Africans who wanted to transform the apartheid situation had been trying for decades to force this transformation, through mass protests, international sanctions, and armed resistance. But these efforts had not succeeded. Mont Fleur and the other multistakeholder processes of the early 1990s (which the previous forceful efforts had precipitated) provided South Africans with a new way to work with other actors from across the system. In the community example, changing the conditions in the schools might require the involvement not just of concerned citizens and school administrators but also of teachers, parents, students, and others.

Third, these people cannot transform their situation directly. The actors who need to work together to make the transformation are too polarized to be able to approach this work head-on. They agree neither on what the solution is nor even on what the problem is. At best, they agree that they face a situation they all find problematic, although in different respects and for different reasons.2 Any attempt to implement a solution directly would therefore only increase resistance and rigidity. So the transformation must be approached indirectly, through first building shared understandings, relationships, and intentions.

The actors who came together in Mont Fleur all agreed that apartheid was irretrievably problematic and needed to be dismantled, but they came in with deep differences in their diagnoses of the ways in which it was problematic and their prescriptions for how it should be transformed. The scenario process enabled them to create common ground. In the community example, the administrators, teachers, parents, and students might have a long history of unproductive disagreements that means they cannot simply sit down and start to work together.

Transformative scenario planning is, then, a way for people to work with complex problematic situations that they want to transform but cannot transform unilaterally or directly. This way of working with the future can be used to deal with such situations at all scales: local, sectoral, regional, national, or global (the stories in this book are all national because this is the scale at which I have done most of my work and that I know best). Transformative scenario planning is not a way for actors to adapt to a situation or to force its transformation or to implement an already-formulated proposal or to negotiate between several already-formulated proposals. It is a way for actors to work cooperatively and creatively to get unstuck and to move forward.

How Transformative Scenario Planning Works

In a transformative scenario planning process, actors transform their problematic situation through transforming themselves, in four ways.

First, they transform their understandings. Their scenario stories articulate their collective synthesis of what is happening and could happen in and around the system of which they are part. They see their situation—and, critically important, their own roles in their situation—with fresh eyes. In a polarized or confused or stuck situation, such new, clear, shared understandings enable forward movement.

Second, the actors transform their relationships. Through working together in the scenario team, they enlarge their empathy for and trust in other actors on the team and across the system, and their ability and willingness to work together. This strengthening of cross-system relationships is often the most important and enduring output of such projects.

Third, the actors transform their intentions. Their transformed understandings and relationships shift how they see what they can and must do to deal with what is happening in their system. They transform their fundamental will.

Fourth, the actors’ transformations of their understandings, relationships, and intentions enable them to transform their actions and thereby to transform their situation.

The story of Mont Fleur exemplifies this four-part logic. The participants constructed a new way of understanding the political, economic, and social challenges that South Africans were facing and then created four scenarios as to how South Africans could try to deal with these challenges. The participants constructed new relationships and alliances, especially between leaders of hitherto-separated parties, sectors, and races. And they constructed new intentions as to what they needed to do in their own spheres of influence to try to prevent the “Ostrich,” “Lame Duck,” and “Icarus” scenarios and to bring forth “Flight of the Flamingos.” Over the years that followed, these new understandings, relationships, and intentions enabled the participants and others with whom they engaged to undertake a series of aligned actions that did in fact contribute to their achieving these intentions.

In the community example, a team of concerned citizens, administrators, teachers, parents, and students might construct a set of scenarios (both desirable and undesirable) about what could happen in and around their schools and community. This work together might enable them to understand and trust one another more, and to clarify what they need to do to change the conditions in their schools. Then they might be able to take action, together and separately, to effect these changes.

Transformative scenario planning can generate transformations such as those in these two examples only if three components are in place. Transformative scenario planning is a composite social technology that brings together three already-existing technologies into a new way of working that can generate new results.3 If any one of these components is missing, this new way of working will not work.

The first component is a whole-system team of insightful, influential, and interested actors. These actors constitute a strategic microcosm of the system as a whole: they are not from only one part or camp or faction of the system, and they are not only observers of the system. They all want to address a particular problematic situation and know that they cannot do so alone. They choose to join this team because they think that if they can act together, then they can be more successful.

The second component is a strong container within which these actors can transform their understandings, relationships, and intentions.4 The boundaries of this container are set so that the team feels enough protection and safety, as well as enough pressure and friction, to be able to do their challenging work. Building such a container requires paying attention to multiple dimensions of the space within which the team does their work: the political positioning of the exercise, so that the actors feel able to meet their counterparts from other parts of the system without being seen as having betrayed their own part; the psychosocial conditions of the work, so that the actors feel able to become aware of and challenge (and have challenged) their own thoughts and actions; and the physical locations of the meetings, so that the actors can relax and pay attention to their work without interruption or distraction.

The third component is a rigorous process. In a transformative scenario planning process, the actors construct a set of relevant, challenging, plausible, and clear stories about what could happen—not about what will happen (a forecast) or about what should happen (a wish or proposal)—and then act on what they have learned from this construction. The uniqueness of the scenario process is that it is pragmatic and inspirational, rational and intuitive, connected to and challenging of dominant understanding, and immersed in and disconnected from the complexity and conflict of the situation. Furthermore, the future is a more neutral space about which all actors are more equally ignorant.

The transformative scenario planning process that was invented at Mont Fleur originated in the adaptive scenario planning process that had been invented at Shell two decades earlier—but it turns this adaptive process on its head. In an adaptive scenario planning process, the leaders of an organization construct and employ stories about what could happen in the world outside their organization in order to formulate strategies and plans to enable their organization to fit into and survive and thrive in a range of possible futures. They use adaptive scenario planning to anticipate and adapt to futures that they think they cannot predict and cannot or should not or need not influence.

But adaptive scenario planning is useful only up to a point. Sometimes people find themselves in situations that are too unacceptable or unstable or unsustainable for them to be willing or able to go along with and adapt to. In such situations, they need an approach not simply for anticipating and adapting to the future but also for influencing or transforming it. For example, an adaptive approach to living in a crime-ridden community could involve employing locks or alarms or guards, whereas a transformative approach could involve working with others to reduce the levels of criminality. An adaptive response to climate change could involve building dikes to protect against higher sea levels, whereas a transformative approach could involve working with others to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Both approaches are rational, feasible, and legitimate, but they are different and require different kinds of actions and alliances.

The key difference between adaptive and transformative scenario planning is, then, one of purpose. Adaptive scenario planning uses stories about possible futures to study what could happen, whereas transformative scenario planning assumes that studying the future is insufficient, and so it also uses stories about possible futures to influence what could happen. To achieve these two different purposes, adaptive scenario planning focuses on producing new systemic understandings, whereas transformative scenario planning assumes that new understandings alone are insufficient and so also focuses on producing new cross-system relationships and new system-transforming intentions. And to produce these two different sets of outputs, adaptive scenario planning requires a rigorous process, whereas transformative scenario planning assumes that process alone is insufficient, and so it also requires a whole-system team and a strong container.

Transformative scenario planning enables people to transform their problematic situation through building a strong alliance of actors who deeply understand the situation, one another, and what they need to do.

The Five Steps of Transformative Scenario Planning

I have learned how to do transformative scenario planning through 20 years of trial and error. I have observed when these projects fail to get off the ground and when they succeed in launching, when they get stuck and when they flow, and when they collapse and when they keep on going. In this way, I have been able to discern what works and what doesn’t and why, and to piece together a simple five-step process. The five steps are as follows: convening a team from across the whole system; observing what is happening; constructing stories about what could happen; discovering what can and must be done; and acting to transform the system. This process is like an old cow path: although it is not the only way forward, it is a way that has, after many alternatives were tried out over many years, proven to provide a reliable route.

These five steps can be framed as an application of the U-Process to the transformation of complex problematic situations.5 The U-Process is a model of transformation that includes five movements: coinitiating (in transformative scenario planning, this is the convening step), cosensing (the observing and constructing steps), copresencing (the discovering step), and cocreating and coevolving (the acting step). The U-Process is an indirect process—a detour—in that it is a way to get unstuck and move forward to transform a problematic situation through pausing and stepping back from the situation. It is a creative process in that what can and must be done on the right-hand side is not visible from the left-hand side but can be discovered only along the way. And it is a fractal process in that each step along the U contains within it a smaller U, so that the actors repeat the five movements from coinitiating to coevolving over and over.

A transformative scenario planning project can be broad or narrow, large or small, long or short. My experience suggests, however, that for a complex problematic situation to be transformed, certain ideal parameters exist. You can succeed outside of these parameters, but you will find it harder, or you will have to use methods different from the ones outlined in this book.

In the first step, a convening team of 5 to 10 people builds a whole-system scenario team of 25 to 35 leading actors (including the conveners themselves). Convening or scenario teams that are smaller than these will be unlikely to have the diversity required for whole-system insight and influence. Convening or scenario teams that are larger than these will find it difficult to develop the intimacy and engagement that the process requires. There are other methods for working with much larger teams, but these are not compatible with the structured combination of rational and intuitive processes of scenario work.

The scenario team undertakes the second, third, and fourth steps in three or four workshops of three to four days each (with supporting work being done in between the workshops), spread over four to eight months. A process with fewer workshops or workshops that are shorter or closer together will be unlikely to provide enough time for the team to go deep enough (and get lost enough) to transform their understandings, relationships, and intentions. (My partner Bill O’Brien said about the time needed for transformational work: “It takes nine months to make a baby, no matter how many people you put on the job.”6) A process with more workshops or workshops that are longer or more spread out will find it difficult to maintain the requisite energy and momentum.

Finally, the scenario team, with others, undertakes the fifth step over another four to eight months or longer. A shorter process will be unlikely to provide enough time for the team’s actions to transform their situation. But their actions could well ripple out for years, either within the scenario project or beyond its end. A transformative scenario planning project can get a process of systemic transformation started, but the process may take generations to be completed.

Transformative scenario planning is simple, but it is not easy or straightforward or guaranteed. The process is emergent; it almost never unfolds according to plan; and context-specific design and redesign are always required. So the only way to learn this process is to practice it in a range of contexts.

The five steps outlined in the following five chapters therefore constitute not so much a recipe to follow as a set of guideposts to keep in view. For each step, I give two or three diverse examples from my own experience, with a few of the examples spread across several steps. Some of the examples illustrate a team’s succeeding in moving forward and some a team’s failing or stopping. I focus on my own experiences, many of them in extreme situations, because these point out in bright colors the universal dynamics of these processes that are harder to discern in more ordinary situations, and they also point out from inside and up close dynamics that are harder to discern from outside and far away. I have told some of these stories before, but I use them here to draw out particular methodological lessons. Finally, for each step, I give a generalized set of process instructions. All of these processes, plus a link to fuller explanations and examples, are collated in the “Resources” chapter.

Reprinted with permission from Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future by Adam Kahane (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2012).

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