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Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future

Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future by Adam Kahane

Here are some of my favourite excerpts…

My colleagues and I call this new way of working transformative scenario planning. Its purpose is to enable those of us who are trying to change the future collaboratively to transform, rather than adapt to, the situation we are part of. It involves a transformation of the situation—like a caterpillar into a butterfly—rather than only an incremental or temporary change. We bring this about through transforming our own thoughts and actions and our relationships with others. Transformative scenario planning centers on constructing scenarios of possible futures for our situation, but it takes the well-established adaptive scenario planning methodology and turns it on its head—so that we construct scenarios not only to understand the future but also to influence it.1 And it involves planning, not in the sense of writing down and following a plan, but in the sense of engaging in a disciplined process of thinking ahead together and then altering our actions accordingly.

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The scenario method asks people to talk not about what they predict will happen or what they believe should happen but only about what they think could happen. At Mont Fleur, this subtle shift in orientation opened up dramatically new conversations.

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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.

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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.

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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 take action together.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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As a team, they should have a range of backgrounds and perspectives (sectoral, ideological, professional, geographical, and so on, stretching beyond the usual participants in such activities to include those with different or dissenting views) that will enable them together to see the emerging system as a whole. They must also have a range of positions and connections (from business, government, and civil society) that will enable them together to influence the system as a whole. The team should be a microcosm or fractal of the whole system.

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The success of your project will depend above all on the people who will make up your scenario team. They will have the greatest influence on the content and consequences of the process, and will also be most influenced by it. Individually, the members of the team should be insightful, influential, and committed. They should be people with a stake in the future of the system (probably including young people); respected leaders of their own organizations, sectors, or communities (although they may not hold the most senior positions or even be known outside of their organizations); curious, systemic thinkers who are willing and able to reflect and speak freely and openly; and energetic and action-oriented leaders (not just spectators or followers) who will take the insights from this work and act on them in their own spheres of influence.

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The way you identify, connect to, and enroll members of the team is simple but not easy. You talk with people, in person, one-on-one, about what you and they are trying to do. You ask them for feedback and advice (including their suggestions of about other people whom they might help you to enroll) and whether they would like to join with you. Some of the people you talk with will have no interest at all in what you are doing, others won’t be interested in joining but will give you some support, and others will join you energetically. You keep going until you have a team.

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Now you conduct in-depth interviews with each team member. These interviews serve several purposes: to elicit the current thinking of the members about what is important in what is happening and might happen in and around the system, about their hopes and fears for the future of the system, and about their expectations for this project; to help them prepare for the work of the project and to respond to any confusions or concerns they might have about it; and to start to build relationships and trust among the participants.

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You take careful notes in these interviews and afterward prepare a summary document that includes verbatim statements, organized by theme but without attributing specific comments to individuals. Nonattribution makes the interviews safer for the interviewee and also depersonalizes the observations. You send this document out to all the team members in advance of your first team meeting; it will enable the team to dive straight into the next step of making sense out of the rich diversity of your different perspectives on your complex context. The themes that the interviewees have emphasized and that you have highlighted in your document also serve to focus the scenario work you will be doing; they provide the touchstone for the relevance of your scenarios.

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One day, I invited all the team members to choose a partner whom they thought was most different from them and for the two of them to go for a one-hour walk together in the town outside the hotel. When they returned from their walk, some of them were literally staggering from the astonishment of having seen their common context through such different eyes. A government official later commented: We are unaware of the great richness in others. We do not see it. There is a lot, quite a lot, to learn from people who, frankly speaking, we would never have considered as possible sources of learning.

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Once I asked the team members to bring to the workshop a physical object that for them represented the current reality of Guatemala. We put our chairs in a circle, and one at a time they presented their objects and placed them on a low table in the middle of the circle: a cob of corn, a staple food, and the seeds for more food, out of which, according to indigenous legend, humanity was formed; several pieces of traditional woven clothing, made up of many bright colors of wool, representing the country’s diverse ethnic groups; a photo of a five-year-old daughter; two copies of the peace accords; and a poster of Myrna Mack, an anthropologist who had been assassinated for conducting research on people displaced by the war. In this way, the team built up a rich metaphorical picture of their diverse understandings of their complex situation.

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Another time, the team traveled by bus to visit a large indigenous cooperative in the rural highlands a few hours from the workshop venue. This “learning journey” was also illuminating, showing an enterprise that was more sophisticated and successful than most of the elite from the capital city could have imagined, and providing an opportunity to have relaxed, in-depth conversations on the long bus rides.

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In advance of the second workshop, we found and sent to the team 15 outstanding papers on these subjects. We invited ten leading thinkers on these subjects to come to the workshop and to form four half-day panels; we called these presenters “resource persons” to emphasize that their role was to be resources for the team rather than experts imposed on it. Following each panel, the team considered the certainties and uncertainties about the future of that topic.

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Pierre Wack, the cofounder of the Shell scenario team, emphasized that the most important phase of scenario work was this “breathing in” phase of examining the current reality in all its complexity, and that this produced the foundation for the later “breathing out” phase of constructing and disseminating scenario stories. Shallow, superficial examination of current reality produces shallow, obvious scenarios about possible future realities. Wack emphasized the discipline of perception: “Seeing the future is about seeing in the right state of focus to put your finger unerringly on the key facts or insights that unlock or open understanding. Thus scenario-making is about acute perception, or better, about re-perception—becoming free of old perceptions and prejudices at the same time.”10

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The scenario process as a whole is an emergent process. So too is this observing step, and so it has a repeating rhythm of three phases: diverging by coming up with a lot of ideas and options; emerging by taking the time to think and talk these through and let them “cook”; and converging by drawing conclusions about what matters, what is agreed, and what to do next.11

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To be useful, the scenarios must be relevant, challenging, plausible, and clear.

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The converging phase of this sense-making step draws conclusions about what is going on in the system in the present that matters most for the future. These conclusions can be tentative: you may iterate several times between this observing step and the next, constructing one. One kind of conclusion that is particularly useful for constructing scenarios is two lists, of certainties and uncertainties. You ask: Looking at the level of systemic structure at the forces driving our system, what are the most important certainties about the future? And what are the most important uncertainties about the future, and what are two possible poles of each uncertainty? These certainties will, by definition, be present in all scenarios, while the uncertainties will be the primary differentiators between scenarios. In the previous example, a certainty might be increasing public awareness of environmental challenges. An uncertainty might be the relative political prioritization of environmental versus economic concerns, and the two poles of this might be the assigning of higher priority to environmental concerns than to economic ones, and vice versa.

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Your objective is to find, among the infinite number of possible stories about what could happen, the two or three or four stories that you think would be most useful. (Fewer than two stories would be a forecast or a vision, not scenarios; more than four would be too many to remember, communicate, and use.) Scenarios are useful when they meet four criteria: they must be relevant, illuminating current circumstances and concerns, and connected to current thinking; challenging, making important dynamics that are invisible visible and raising questions about current thinking; plausible, logical and fact based; and clear, accessible, memorable, and distinct from one another.

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The members of the Dinokeng team had expanded their shared understanding of their situation and of their roles in it. The remaining misalignment among them was neither unusual nor problematic. This ideologically and politically heterogeneous group had simply reached the limit of what they thought they needed and were willing to agree on. Every group has such a limit; complete alignment is not necessary or even desirable. What is important is that the team is able to help their system to get unstuck and move forward. The Dinokeng team accomplished this.

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At the beginning of the first workshop, one of the organizers had expressed his greatest fear about the project. It was “that we stay within the usual conversation, repeat things we have said often before, and play out our usual roles.” His fear was realized.

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Your objective in undertaking this process was not to construct scenarios as an end in themselves but to use them to transform your system. So now you step back and see what meanings and conclusions you can draw from your scenarios about what you can and must do. These are conclusions about what options you have and what actions you intend to take, to achieve what objectives, with what allies.

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From the perspective of the project process, stepping back corresponds to the copresencing movement at the bottom of the U. Many times during the process so far, you have paused, quieted down, and reflected on what was at that moment going on in yourself, in your team, and in your system. This pausing in the middle of the work provides a simple and useful interruption in the pressured busyness of an intellectually, emotionally, and politically demanding process. It helps you to notice what is going on, what it means, and what you need to do next.

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You can pause for a few seconds of self-awareness or a few minutes of quiet reflection or journaling in the group. Or you can pause for longer: a few hours in silence in nature (without books or cell phones or other distractions), as part of one of your workshops, or even a few days of silent retreat. You will find that all of these pattern-interrupting practices are surprisingly creative and productive.

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The way you pause follows your usual diverging-emerging-converging rhythm. You reflect individually; then you share your reflections in the team; and then you make sense of these reflections.

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From the perspective of the project content, you can draw two kinds of meanings or conclusions from your scenarios. These correspond to the two complementary stances that Reinhold Niebuhr identified in his maxim: “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The first, the adaptive stance, assumes that you cannot change the system you are part of and implies that you must accept it and adapt to it serenely. The second, the transformative stance, assumes that you can change the system (in most cases through allying with others) and implies that you must try to do so courageously.

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First you take the adaptive stance. You look at your scenarios of possible futures, any of which could plausibly occur—whether or not you like them or want them. One scenario at a time, you ask: if this scenario occurred, what would I or my organization or community or country have to do to survive and thrive? For this exercise, a reverse-order “SWOT” analysis can be useful: if this scenario occurred, which opportunities and threats would we face, and which of our strengths and weaknesses would be important? For example, if the “Walk Behind” scenario occurred, then as a businessperson I would face the threat of increased government intervention, and my lack of connections to the government would be a weakness, so in order to adapt to this future, I would need to find business partners with good connections to the government.

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Next you take the transformative stance. You look at your scenarios as a set and ask: Which futures are better for me and my organization or community or country? Which futures do I want, and which do I not want? The 1960s slogan “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” misses the crucial point, which is that if you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.3 In other words, if you can’t see the ways in which what you are doing or not doing is contributing to what is happening in the present, then you can’t contribute to what could happen in the future—except from outside or above the system, by pushing. So the fundamental transformative questions are: What is my role in what is happening and could happen? What is my responsibility? What does the future need of me?

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you are gradually discovering the intersection of the answers to the two fundamental and complementary questions that underlie all strategic thinking: What is happening in the world that could have an impact on us? And what impact do we want to have on the world?

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Out of all this, you draw conclusions about what you must do. Some of your conclusions and actions will be congruent across your team, and you will want to work on these together; others will be congruent across your team, and you will want to work on them in alignment but separately; and others will differ across your team—perhaps even be in opposition—and on these you will part ways. All these responses are legitimate and can be useful in getting unstuck and moving forward on addressing your problematic situation.

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The understandings, relationships, intentions, and actions that the scenario process produced are seeds. Sometimes they fail to germinate, and sometimes they fall on hard or barren soil. Even when they do sprout, they don’t necessarily grow in ways that can be predicted or controlled. So this fifth step, even more than the previous ones, is emergent. The team needs to pay attention to where and how its work is taking root and to cultivate these new possibilities.

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In the months before we launched our report publicly, we held private briefings with more than 30 national leaders, including the president. The launch of our report, in May 2009 (right after a national election but before the new government took office), got full pages of coverage in all the major newspapers. Over the two years after the launch, we distributed 20,000 copies of our full 80-page report, 10,000 copies (in five languages) of a 32-page summary report, and 2,000 copies of a 30-minute video; we ran more than 100 workshops for political, business, nongovernmental, and community organizations in every province and every major city; we created five weekly inserts in a national chain of newspapers (with 2 million readers) and six weekly televised debates (with 500,000 viewers); our work was the subject of more than 150 newspaper articles and more than 25 radio and television broadcasts; and our website had 40,000 hits.

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The biggest contribution we made with Dinokeng was changing the mindset and forcing people to take responsibility. That has been the powerful message, and not a particularly pleasant message to give to a society that is waiting for Mandela to give them things. We were bold there. I don’t believe that you can influence people overnight, but you can plant a seed and, like the story of soil in the Bible, it depends on where the seed ultimately falls. Our job is to disseminate.2

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Gonzalo de Villa, a university rector, suggested that the scenarios were only the means for the team and others to accomplish the larger end of finding new ways to work together to build their country.

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Transformative scenario planning inspires actions by concentric circles of change agents. The first circle is made up of the members of your scenario team itself: you are the ones who make the biggest impact on the process and are the most affected by it.

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The next circle includes people with whom your team members engage. You can do this in many ways: you can engage one-on-one in private conversations or briefings with key individuals, including ones from your own organization or sector. You can engage in meetings or workshops with the teams of leaders of key organizations, including your own. You can have in-person or virtual dialogues or town hall meetings with large gatherings of fellow citizens. And you can connect with larger populations through print, broadcast, and social media, and through working with cultural agents.

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You want other people to be inspired to pick these seeds up, to work with them, and to act on them. Transformative scenario planning contributes to transforming systems only if the seeds it produces propagate and spread.

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Whatever combination of joint and separate actions you choose to take, you need to maintain in some form the container and infrastructure that the project has created. This will help you to support the continued actions, including spinoff activities, by the team and others who have become involved in the work. It will also help you to enable ongoing inspiration, learning, and mutual assistance among these people.

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“The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things. The revolution—that change that takes place—will not be televised.”1

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Transformative scenario planning generates tangible and visible change in the world via subtle, invisible, and nonlinear changes within and among us.

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What I have learned from this experience and others is that you must try to do this work as best you can, but that its failure or success—like most things about the future—cannot be controlled or predicted or even known. The Hindu text The Bhagavad Gita puts it succinctly: “The work is yours, but not the fruits thereof.”

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After I had given a presentation about the Mont Fleur experience, a question from one of the guerrillas was relayed to me by phone: “Do we have to agree to a ceasefire to participate in the scenario workshops?” I gave an answer that I hoped was correct: “A scenario process is not a negotiation. There are no preconditions to participating except a willingness to talk and to listen.”

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The team came up with a set of ground rules for their work together. They agreed to speak frankly; to express their differences without irony; to assume the good faith of others; to be tolerant, disciplined, and punctual; to be concrete and concise; and to keep confidences. They were proud of these ground rules, which in the midst of so much lawlessness and violence helped them to construct a strong and safe container.

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In a 2006 report, political scientist Angelika Rettberg reached a similar conclusion: “The greatest impact was on those who participated, changing their perceptions, attitudes, and stereotypes, and generating a mutually enriching human approach to the construction of peace. But the impact seems to be diminished when we look at the participants in their professional lives and at broader public policy decisions and social processes.”

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A paradox is a proposition that appears to be self-contradictory. The paradox of transformative scenario planning is that we move forward by stepping back. We get unstuck not by pushing but instead by pausing. We deal with situations that seem to demand urgent action by instead employing deliberate talk.

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The fundamental capacity required to deal with this paradox is suspending. Suspending means taking our thoughts about our situation and hanging them in front of us, as if from a string. This enables us and others to notice and investigate our thoughts, so that we can, if necessary, alter them. Suspending is the doorway into the creative “U” process.5 Failing to suspend locks us into reenacting old realities rather than enacting new ones.

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The simple act of suspending is the key to collaborative social transformation because it is the necessary first step to working creatively with diverse others. It is the key to transformative scenario planning in particular because in this process we work with multiple stories about what could happen, rather than any single story about what will happen (a forecast) or what should happen (a proposal). “Scenarios,” Betty Sue Flowers says, “are like different lenses through which we can see the world.”6 Multiple stories generate possibilities for new futures.

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This attention to multiple wholes produces a permanent creative tension. In working with the Dinokeng team, I noticed that we found our way forward by alternating between emphasizing the smaller whole (the perspective of each person) until the team became fragmented, and emphasizing the larger whole (the consensus of the team) until we fell into groupthink.10 In scenario work, we must not privilege any smaller whole (such as one powerful person) over any larger one (such as the team). Nor must we privilege any larger whole over any smaller one, such as by demanding that someone “put aside their agenda” to benefit “the good of the team.” We must never choose either whole; we must always choose both, alternately. What this requires of us as leaders or facilitators is the capacity to embrace and exercise both our power and our love.

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resources are available at www.reospartners.com/scenarios

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The Inner Game (www.theinnergame.com). My thanks to Zaid Hassan for pointing out the ways in which collaborative social transformation processes are team sports.

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